Of course, becoming an adult orphan isn’t a tragedy; it’s actually the normal way of the world. Still, the term struck me as a bad — or sad — joke. Orphaned at 59? But like many of my contemporaries, this friend’s parents had passed away several years ago, and he’d experienced a profound sense of loss, or “orphanhood.” As it turned out, he was the first of more than a half-dozen others who began referring to me that way.
Deb Del Vecchio-Scully, a licensed professional counselor and trauma specialist, says, “the loss of our parents — becoming an adult orphan — is a defining moment and changes the landscape of our lives.”
I certainly knew the definition of an orphan: A child without parents. A tragic situation, hands down. That sure wasn’t me — or my friends. I’m an adult, very close to my two siblings and their families, with a wide friendship circle.
For the first several months after my parents died, I had little bandwidth to ruminate on this double loss and what it meant. I kept busy, consumed with the business end of loss (planning memorial services, helping my siblings to clear out our parents’ house) and my own work.
But after a few months, the “orphan” talk surprisingly began to resonate with me.
“The loss of a second parent can mean the loss of the home you grew up in. It could mean the loss of rituals that have lasted a lifetime, the loss of habits and practices that have lasted for decades,” said Bella DePaulo, a social science researcher at the University of California at Santa Barbara who has written about the resulting loss when parents die.
I remember telling my sister about a year after our mother had died, “I wish I could call Mom right now.” Julie asked if anything was wrong. “No,” I replied. “I just miss talking with her.”
I queried my friends whose parents had died, asking whether they felt like orphans. One, now in his 50s, told me, “When my last parent passed away I distinctly remember feeling cast adrift on a wide, wide sea. I was no longer the ‘baby.’ Just a guy in his 40s with no mother or father.” Another told me “My mom died when I was 26. My dad when I was 42. I was pretty much the only person without parents at that stage of life, so I did feel ‘orphaned’ in some ways. And certainly that feeling was exacerbated when I went through cancer treatment . . . at 48. I watched others my age receiving parental help, and it made me feel all the more disconnected.”
Frankly, I found myself surprised by the number of adult orphans who said they continued to experience an enduring sense of loss. “It’s an existential period. Alone on the earth for the first time” my friend Samuel Chapman, 54, said. Though he is far from alone: He’s married and the father of three boys.
About four months after my father died, with more time to brood, I felt adrift, untethered. I also turned 60 — a natural time to take stock of your life. I realized that for my entire life — including some tough times — my parents had been the North Star in my sky. From high school astronomy I remembered being taught that Polaris stands motionless in the north sky, while all the other stars of the northern sky revolve around it. Without my guiding star I felt like I had no focus, no way to orient myself.
DePaulo wasn’t surprised when I explained these feelings. “Your parents gave you your name and your first sense of identity, and now they are gone.”
It didn’t help that I found myself in the middle of a divorce in the months after my parents’ deaths. My mother had always been my most fierce defender — a mama bear protecting her cub — regardless of the situation or my age. I remembered all the times Mom had wise counsel, and knew that my “spirited” mother would have had plenty to say about the spouse of 13 years who left in the months between her death and my dad’s. My loudest cheerleader had been silenced.
And my dad — also an author and journalist — had been my go-to professional adviser who critiqued my work and provided helpful guidance. My parents had been my safety net for a very long time: 59 years to be exact.
In this new twilight zone I found myself on my own. I found myself reaching out to my siblings more and more, not to mention my friends. I can easily make pumpkin chocolate chip muffins, meatloaf and blood orange mimosas for a dozen friends (a balanced diet in its own way). In turn, a group of neighbors hosted a birthday party for me that included cupcakes, cava and karaoke.
DePaulo says she dislikes the term “adult orphans,” partly because it’s inaccurate (“orphans are children”) but also because adults without parents are “not just independent but also interdependent. They have people in their lives who are important to them. They depend on those people and those people depend on them.” I say yes to all that because this, too, is the natural order of our lives (or should be). Aging parents die and leave their now adult kids to pick up after them.
I don’t know what word we should use for this parentless state, or if we even need a word for it at all. I do know that it changes everything, no matter what the preexisting relationship had been. This is big, and I think those who have called me an “orphan” mean to imply just that. As a college friend of mine put it, “the front line is gone. No more blockers.” Without our parents, we become our own front line.
Or as Del Veccio-Sully put it: “Who will take their place? You have to assume that role. You are the wise one.”