When most people think about an orphan, the image that comes to mind is, more often than not, that of a young child with no loving parent available to comfort it. Images of Victorian orphan ‘asylums’ (and worse) are conjured. We see children whose parents have died or abandoned them.
A second thought might remind us that even if we are elderly ourselves when our second parent dies, we too, have become orphaned. No matter our age, we have always been someone’s child and, by definition, an orphan is a child without parents. In relation to our parents, we are children.
Certainly not forever chronologically, but psychologically we remain someone else’s offspring for as long as we live.
Because children generally have dependency needs that are far more pronounced than those of any reasonably healthy and intact adult, the nature of being orphaned is different in many ways for them. But the fact that adults, too, have feelings and reactions to the fact of becoming orphaned is an undeniable reality.
The fact that this subject has been seriously under-researched and academically neglected is more a function of adults needing to feel that as adults we should not be too terribly impacted by a parent’s death than it is by any objective lack of need to study and understand what happens to us when we become the oldest surviving generation in our family.
Adults have feelings and they tend to show most often at times of great joy or at those of great loss. Even for the adult whose second parent has died with whom they never enjoyed a great relationship, there is certain finality in death, the substance of which is a bit different for everyone and is nearly impossible to share. But it surely can be and is felt as loss.
No one’s life is or can ever hope to be devoid of the experience of loss – But the loss of a parent and, in an acutely painful and similar way the loss of a child, have particularly powerful significance for and impact on us. Were this not so, we would be something other than completely human.
Now having established that being orphaned is not, exclusively, a condition that effects children, it’s time to reflect some on what, exactly is lost by the adult whose last parent has just died.
Firstly, there is a certain point of reference that is suddenly and irretrievably gone. The last of the two people from whom we came … The closest representative of the oldest generation of our family. It is now us. We must become, in an instant, our own point of reference. At the same time, we are in the position of having to process the notion that the senior member of this family firm has now become …us. Ouch!
Many people hold their parents responsible for certain attributes of their own. Blaming parents is a not uncommon phenomenon in most cultures, even ones in which they are ostensibly revered. This seems somehow unfair after they die. We lose a living scapegoat for things about ourselves we wish were different. In other words, we become fully responsible for ourselves. As the cartoon character Pogo was famous for saying, “We have met the enemy and it is us” becomes a clear and present reality on the day our last parent dies.
I know that this happens much earlier for many people – yet pieces of holding the parent(s) responsible often hangs on for many, many years. It feels bad to blame a dead person. As my own mother often said (and she was no great fan of her own mother), “Never speak ill of the dead.” So long as they are alive, well that is a different story. There’s something else we have lost. Someone to hold accountable …Someone to blame.
If we have not gotten around to forgiving them for having been the imperfect people that they most certainly were, this would be the time to do so. It’ll have the effect of making you easier on yourself for the rest of your own life. In that way, there is potential gain in the loss.
As with so many things in life, there are intertwined elements of both joy and sorrow, yin and yang, loss and gain. The death of the parent brings, to the adult child, the understandably difficult opportunity to acknowledge and adjust our lives and self-views accordingly.
This is very different from the experience that children have being orphaned. For them, a parent may be the greater part of their world. For us adults, it is more like Superman’s relationship to the planet Krypton (and both of his parents who died there) – It is a reminder of where we have come from.
As adults, our own best ally in times of stress and suffering is a combination of our own awareness and resiliency. We have survived and we shall survive … Until the day when one of our own children reads an article like this when we have become the one gone.
Unless we should happen to predecease our parents, we are all ultimately destined to be orphans … one and all.