When my father died, in 2004, I was surprised at how hard the grief hit me. I had known, for a very long time, that he was dying. It wasn’t a surprise. And yet it was harder, when he died, than it was when my mom had died four years earlier.
I didn’t expect that.
For many months after Daddy died, I would find myself crying at unexpected times, for what seemed trivial reasons. I couldn’t think straight. I paid bills late — the first and only time I’ve struggled to keep bills paid. It wasn’t that we couldn’t afford to pay them. I was just so lost in my grief that I couldn’t keep up with my ordinary responsibilities.
I didn’t understand what was wrong with me.
A Midlife Orphan
Somewhere along the way, my dear husband gave me a book about becoming an orphan in midlife. We all know how hard it is when a young child’s parents die. We don’t all realize that it’s perhaps just as hard when a middle-aged person’s parents die. Not from a practical point of view, of course. The orphaned child needs someone to take care of their physical needs. That’s huge. And as an adult, we don’t need that any more.
But the needs of our hearts don’t change that much over the years. Even when we no longer need our parents to look after us, we need them. They help us define who we are. They show us where we belong.
And when they die, we feel unmoored, adrift. We feel exposed.
As long as your parents are alive, your heart feels as though they are a place of safety or refuge. You don’t live with them, but you could. They don’t provide for you, but if you needed them to, they would. They’re the place that you can go if your life falls apart. It’s as if your parents are the roof over your head. As long as they are in place, you are safe. There is a place that you belong.
And so, with the death of your first parent, you suffer the grief of losing a dearly loved person, a part of your heart. But that roof is still in place.
When your other parent dies, the roof is ripped away. The place, the relationship, that defined you is gone.
In a way, the death of your parents forces you into a new phase of your life. A phase where you have to define who you are, on your own. Your parents don’t define you any more. They can’t tell you, “In our family, we don’t do that.” You can do what you choose.
And many people go through a “midlife crisis” when they become orphans as adults. Because they have to redefine themselves. And that’s as hard when your 50 as it was when you were 15.
I’ve been through that, and come out on the other side. And I think I’m happier and better for it.
Last week, my Aunt Katheryn, my father’s last surviving sibling, died. It wasn’t unexpected. She was on hospice care. And while I loved her and admired her (everyone who knew her thought the world of her), if I’m honest, I wasn’t closer to her than I was to any of my other aunts and uncles.
But her death has hit me so much harder.
I had gotten used to living without a roof over my head. But now, it’s as though a hole has been torn open in the sky above me. The fabric of the universe has been torn.
My place in it has changed.
Imagine yourself as a nail in the wall. Higher on the wall are your parents, and their parents, and their parents. And there are threads running between you and each of the people on the wall above you. It forms an intricate pattern that binds all of you into a coherent whole.
Over the years, though, nails get pulled out. Threads get snipped. New nails get added — below you, on the wall, your children, the children of your siblings. More threads are spun, tying it all together.
But when the last of a generation is gone, that whole section of wall falls away. Your grief for the one who has just died pulls in the grief for everyone of their generation who has died before. And with all that, you grieve the loss of the familiar patterns, of your place in the pattern of the world.
And that’s what happened last week. I now find myself at the top of the wall. There’s nothing above me now. The patterns are broken. I can remember it, but for how long?
In the Orthodox church, when someone dies, we express our condolences with the words, “Memory eternal.” It’s a prayer that God will hold the person in His unfailing memory. That the patterns won’t be lost. That the relationships, the threads of love that bind us together, will remain in Him for eternity.
Memory eternal, Aunt Katheryn.
Times and Seasons: In the Orthodox Church, evening is the beginning of a new day, autumn is the beginning of a new year, and death is the beginning of a new life.
Grow Old Along with Me: My husband and I are not young any more. And on our anniversary, I found myself thinking of this line from one of Robert Browning’s poems: “Grow old along with me! The best is yet to be, The last of life, for which the first was made.”
Two Books Featuring Delightful Old Women: These are the women in these picture books are the kind of women I want to be when I’m old.