You will likely become an orphan at some point in your lifetime. Hopefully that time comes later rather than sooner in life. My husband and I lost three of our parents in our late twenties and early thirties. We were pregnant, raising small children and building our careers. For better or worse, it was difficult for us to really grieve. My husband was irritable and neglected his regular joke telling ways for a while. I abandoned the second half of a bathroom remodel, the half-finished room serving as a constant reminder of what no longer mattered. We both surrendered to resentment as we watched our friends’ families bask in the joys of grandparents.
Yet lately, we have been the ones attending funerals for our friends’ parents. This is not unexpected, as losing one’s parents is something that is supposed to happen when you are in your fifties and sixties. . You expect to go to funerals for parents in their late eighties or nineties. Even so, losing a parent can still can have a major effect, regardless of your age when it occurs.
Many of my clients are responsible for the care of aging parents. They spend numerous hours each week attending medical appointments, coordinating caregivers and medical providers, and wrestling with insurance and legal paperwork. Not to mention those of you who may find yourself spending time with an aging parent who no longer knows who you are. Some of us expect to feel relieved when we no longer have these responsibilities and are blindsided by the depth of the empty hole left by the passing of a parent. For others, the shock comes from feeling like an orphan. Realizing the person who loved you from the day you were born is gone, and with it, the generational layer between you and your own death can be overwhelming.
Grief can be very powerful. For example, I recently invited longtime friends to a James Taylor concert for old times’ sake. My friend, who recently became an orphan, declined the invitation stating that for now on, he was no longer interested in James Taylor or any other concerts.
Here are four things to do when faced with this kind of loss:
1. Acknowledge that it is a big deal.
Grief is grief, even if your parent is 100, even if you are 75. For most people, the death of their final parent hits them hardest. When your first parent dies, you are often focused on taking care of your living parent. When your final parent dies, there are less distractions and responsibilities. You have easier access to your own feelings. Give yourself the time that you need to grieve. Try not to minimize the loss.
- Recognize that you have lost more than your relationship with your parent.
You have not only lost the role of child, but also that of caretaker. Remember when your kids left home and you were no longer responsible and involved in their day to day lives? Remember the soccer parents and your kid’s friends that you missed when the kids left? Well, you may miss the caretakers that you spoke to regularly. You will no longer hear about their families. What about the other residents at your parent’s apartment building/assisted living or nursing home? These people were a part of your life and losing them will be tough.
- Reach out to others in the same situation.
There is nothing more powerful than the sense of being part of a community where we feel understood. Reach out to others who have recently lost a second parent. Tell them why you are reaching out and ask to meet for coffee. Those already in “the club” are usually happy to connect with you. The person you reach out to does not have to be a close friend or confidante. In fact, casual friends can often be more understanding and helpful in these situations.
- Use the tools you used when you became an empty nester.
How did you handle your transition to the empty nest? What worked for you? Did you take time to let the dust settle or did you jump into making new connections? Some new orphans (there must be a better word for this) feel a greater need to get involved in something more meaningful. Some redeploy the skills they developed caring for their parents to become patient care advocates, drive the elderly to medical appointments or volunteer at eldercare communities. Others enjoy the freedom to take care of themselves and enjoy spending more time with friends and having fun.
Whatever you do, make sure you do what feels right to you.