I am sharing this article from Fairfax Digital out of Canada as I experience the lost of my last parent. It has been my faith, family and spiritual community that has sustained me and I hope others who experience losing both parents will have all the support they need to help them through this difficult time of their life. I hope this article will be helpful to those who may need it. – Delane
They’re the forgotten grievers, the lucky ones whose parents had a good innings, the people who after a few months or even weeks are expected to dust themselves down, put their pain behind them and get back to a normal, happy life.
Midlife orphans, orphaned adults — there’s no established term for them, yet losing your parents is one of adult life’s most significant rites of passage. And while society recognises the loss that children feel when their parents die, adults are supposed to be fundamentally different, quickly dealing with the grief of losing the people that raised them from the cradle.
If only it were that simple. Psychologists warn that the impact of losing your parents goes way beyond organising the funeral and sorting out the will. It might be the natural order of things that parents die before their children, but the sheer inevitability is no cushion to the pain, soul-searching and sheer feeling of rudderlessness that so often follows.
Sue Cooper, who lives in Mt Martha, lost both her parents within 10 months of each other nine years ago. “I remember sitting with my sister crying and saying to each other ‘We’re orphans now’. There was a horrible emptiness, like all our back-up was gone. I felt very alone.”
Jack, a journalist with a wire service in Melbourne, lost his mother at the age of eight. He was in his early 20s when his father died. “Dad’s death hit me very hard,” he says. “About a month after he died my brother said to me, ‘You know, we’re orphans now.’ I hadn’t thought about it in those terms till then. It made me feel really alone, like I had a huge obstacle in front of me.”
Rob, a bank officer who lives in St Kilda, was 27 when his mother died, 29 when his father succumbed to bowel cancer. “I had this great sense of loneliness,” he says. “I ended up having quite severe depression. There was a lot of reckless partying, a lot of drinking, two phases of depression of about six months. At one stage I was quite suicidal.”
Bettina Arndt, Age columnist and member of the National Advisory Committee on Ageing, says she got an “enormous shock” when her parents died one and two years ago respectively, a shock that still affects her deeply.
American author Jane Brooks was almost 50 when her mother’s death stopped her in her tracks. “For a 47-year-old mother of two to admit to feeling like an orphan was somewhat embarrassing, making me seem needy and childish,” Brooks writes. “Especially since everyone assumed within weeks after the funeral that I was fine. I continued to work, to parent, and to go about my life. Internally, however, something was happening to me. The avalanche of emotions churning inside was throwing me off balance.”
Brooks, who has since written a book called Midlife Orphan: Facing Life’s Changes Now that Your Parents Are Gone, thought she was an unusual case until by chance she heard a woman voice similar emotions. “When I heard (her) words, I realised that perhaps my reaction wasn’t as extreme or unique as I imagined,” she writes.
“What we’re talking about here is disenfranchised grief,” says Chris Hall, director of the Centre for Grief Education at Monash Medical Centre. “It’s not a grief that tends to be appreciated,” he says. “The first question people ask is `How old were they?’ And because people can say the older parent had a good innings that grief can be disqualified by others.”
“Parents are like repositories of memory. They’re the only ones who hold certain memories of you as a child. It’s like a mirror — we define ourselves in terms of our relationships so our parents’ deaths challenge us to define who we are.”
Jack Lockett was one who had a good innings. Australia’s oldest man, he was 111 when he died in May last year in Bendigo. His son Kevin was thus 74 when he finally became an orphan. “I was lucky enough to play bowls on the same team with him, we went on fishing trips together,” says Kevin. He’s kept plenty of memorabilia, including newspaper photos of his father carrying the Olympic torch through Bendigo. “But it was a milestone (when he died),” the septuagenarian says sadly. “No matter who you lose, it always hurts. I still get emotional about it sometimes. There’s no use dwelling on it too long, but sometimes we certainly have our moments!”
American psychologist Alexander Levy in his book The Orphaned Adult describes the despair that can follow losing your parents. “At a minimum, parental death in midlife elicits lingering feelings of loneliness, memories of former losses, unresolved conflicts, and doubts concerning life’s purpose,” he writes.
“Feeling adult, a member of the eldest generation, brings the chilling knowledge that there is now no one between us and death. Without exception, those whom I have spoken to soon after the death of their second parent have said to me, I just realised that I am the next in line to die.”
The death of the last parent can also trigger grief for other losses, in particular reactivating mourning for the first parent. Brooks says adult children often do not fully mourn the first parent because they become so preoccupied with the surviving parent. “Thus, the second parent’s death plunges us into what can feel like a bottomless pit of emotion as we struggle with grief that had not previously been fully acknowledged.”
Bettina Arndt uses that term “a good innings” to describe her elderly parents’ lives. “Before they died I had this sense of dread not being able to contemplate what it would be like, but beyond that I hadn’t thought much about it,” she says. “It’s just been an enormous shock, the extent of the loss, even now over a year or two year later. I’ll just never get over it. Every day it hits me, that they’re not there any more.
“As your parents get older the whole process of dealing with them can be difficult, yet you end up with so many regrets, the things you don’t know, the questions you would’ve liked to have asked, the things you would like to have said. When my mother died I looked at every scrap of paper in the whole house hoping she’d written something for me.”
Arndt has been struck by what she calls the “selfishness of the younger generation”. Parents, she says, are always interested in what’s happening to their children but when the children grow up the interest is not always reciprocated. “The gaps are starting to emerge now in what I’d like to know. I’m rather shocked at what I don’t know about them — when they’re around you’re used to the fact that you can always ring up and ask them.”
Family relationships have changed. Losing her parents has drawn Arndt closer to her brothers, she says. “Organising the funeral was amazing, extremely stressful of course. These experiences do create a bond we hadn’t experienced for many years. There was good as well as bad in all of that.”
Rob has similarly bonded with his three older sisters. “Our parents’ death definitely strengthened my relationships with my sisters,” he says. “As children we didn’t get along so well but we’ve got over a lot of animosity and sibling rivalry.”
Jack, too, says the bereavement has strengthened ties, in his case with his brother and his stepmother. “We’re united now. We’ve all lost the same person, we’re the only people who can help each other.”
Sue Cooper’s parents held the family together socially. “All of a sudden that history was gone,” she says. “From being a very close family that did everything together, suddenly there was this void — our children had no grandparents and we had no parents. All the dynamics had changed. It seems stupid because I had a husband and children, but it felt like I lost my family — you do lose that family that you grew up in.”
Cooper has assumed some motherly duties with her relatives, visiting her mother’s aunt and helping her younger sister look after her pre-school-age children. “I used to ring my mum every day, now my sister rings me every day.”
Family experiences are not always so positive, Hall warns. The bereaved may be exhausted physically as well as emotionally, particularly if they have been looking after their parents. Disputes can arise over a range of matters, including inheritances, drawing in siblings, step-parents and children.
“Every sibling will have a different relationship with their parents,” says Hall. “You can have five people in a room crying for five very different reasons. There can be a lack of communication between siblings, and different ways of grieving.”
Melbourne mother-of-four Karen Rusden hoped that one of her older sisters would step into the role of organiser of family celebrations and events when her mother died 13 years ago. “But noone really did, so we lost all the family traditions and all just drifted apart. The family became fairly fractured. Mum was the link that kept us all together.”
Relationships with partners can also be rocked by a parental death. Brooks notes that those seeking comfort and support might find their partner insufficiently sympathetic, leaving the bereaved angry or disillusioned.
Furthermore, married adults can often experience some resentment of the spouse whose parents are still living. When that happens, she says, its not that the wife, for example, wishes her in-laws were dead, but it’s still “he has his parents and I don’t have mine anymore”.
Brooks concludes that midlife orphans are compelled to examine the past, dredging up both meaningful and unpleasant memories. “Expressing our ambivalent feelings about our deceased parents affords us a measure of comfort, and, at the same time, encourages our personal growth,” she writes. “Really knowing our parents — that’s what enables us to think of them gently.
“Finally we must make conscious decisions to move on, if only with tiny, tentative steps until we find comfort in our own shoes, shoes that fit us better than those of our parents.”
Hall, though, challenges the notions of “moving on” and “letting go”. “There’s the idea that what we need to do is sever the emotional connection, that out of sight is out of mind, which dates back to the early work of Freud that says grief is about disconnecting,” he says. “We now know this is incorrect. After a parent dies we continue to carry their voice in our heads at some level, as an encourager or as an admonisher. Death ends a life, it doesn’t end a relationship.”
Levy describes parental death as a compulsory subject in the school of life. “Everyone is enrolled. Everyone pays tuition in the form of grief. Nearly everyone learns something valuable.”
The primal fear we experience from childhood that our parents might not be there next morning when we wake up, is what makes losing parents so confronting, he argues. Yet, the enormity of the loss can ultimately be liberating.
“After we recover (and, hard as it is to imagine at the time, we do recover), our life and reaction to death is changed,” he writes. “And it is the gradual realisation we will survive the loss that makes parental death so transforming.”
– Additional reporting by Michelle Hamer
*Some surnames have been omitted by request.