Adult orphan: Why is life’s inevitable transition so hard?

Losing our parents: If it’s an inevitable transition, then why’s it so hard?

Nearly two and a half years after losing my Mom to breast cancer, I still struggle with being an orphaned adult. Intellectually I know it’s something that happens to the best and the worst of us… if we’re lucky enough to live a ‘normal’ life. My heart simply hasn’t caught up with my brain yet. I’ve not yet come through this unavoidable transition. I’m not yet the person this transition will make me. But I’m 100% sure I’ll be wiser, stronger and softer when I get to the other side; that I’ll be more human and my life will be more meaningful.

Recently three close friends lost their fathers. I watch their suffering. I hear their heartache. I feel their pain. I see them flounder as the maps they’ve used to navigate life disappear. In my heart I know they’ll make it through… even though they may not believe it yet. Our grief is like a fingerprint; it’s unique to each one of us. The only similarity is that it’s hard.

Yes, navigating life’s transitions isn’t easy. Even the good ones – graduating, starting work, retiring, getting married and having kids – can be tough at times. Change is life. Life is change. Without change, our lives would be dull. We may not always be looking for change, but it seeks us, sometimes catching us completely off guard. All we can do is ACCEPT that no life ever stands still. Of course this is easier said than done.

People step into our lives, stay for a while and then they leave. Our bodies expand and shrink. Our brains are moulded by our thoughts and actions. Possessions come and go. Careers have turning points. Relationships wax and wane. No one ever gets through life without undergoing some type of change, so when it happens, we shouldn’t fight it. I think this is what the Buddhists mean when they say attachment is the root of all suffering. Attachment to things, attachment to people and attachment to the status quo all cause pain. The tighter our grip, the deeper the suffering. Accepting, letting go and embracing the future, no matter how scary it seems, are the things we need to do to make transitioning easier. Acceptance and letting go are two of death’s benefits. Authenticity is another.

I’ve recently re-read The Orphaned Adult by Alexander Levy. He eloquently explains what losing our parents is like. Here are some extracts that resonated with me:

“While our parents are alive, reality occurs sequentially. Time moves in a straight line—past, present, future. It’s as though we are passing through life on a train. Reality is what we are going through at the moment. It passes our window, real for as long as it is framed in our view.

There is a car for each generation on that train—our siblings, cousins, and friends are with us in one car; our parents, aunts, and uncles in the car ahead; maybe a grandparent car even farther ahead; eventually perhaps a car of children behind our own. All of us lined up in a row.

Our view of what is ahead is blocked by that parental car in front of us. We can only gaze through the side windows, through which reality scrolls past, a flat, two-dimensional picture—endless, and safe. Then our parents die.

The car ahead of ours is gone. For the first time, we can see out the front. Life, reality, and time look dramatically different in the bright light of this new panorama. It may be all we can do, at first, just to not avert our eyes to avoid the harshness of that unfamiliar glare. The view now includes the future, and it is not endless. We see, and start to know, to really know—not just know with our minds, but know with our skin, our cells, and our souls—that we are now in the lead car. We are next in line.”

The death of my Mother – my only parent since my Dad died when I was three – has left the bitter taste of mortality in my mouth. I now truly understand that I’m not going to live forever, that life is short. I’m changed on the inside. My soul is saying, “Your life is your own. It belongs to you and only you. Go forth and live with meaning. Let go of what holds you back. Cast your gifts abundantly into the world. Scatter the seeds of who you are. Shine. Just do it.” The louder it shouts and the more I listen, the sweeter the taste of my own mortality.

So, why’s it hard? For me, Alexander Levy answers this, “Living parents provide the comforting illusion that it is always someone else’s turn to die before it is our turn. That illusion, and the protection it offers, perishes when they do.”

What’s the point? For me the lesson is courage. We need a lot of courage to navigate the uncharted paths of life after our parents die; the uncharted paths to becoming 100% ourselves.

I saw these words on Deshun Deysel’s Facebook page this morning. They sum up the unique and hard journey that grief is:

“Ignoring the mountain is foolish because tomorrow it will still be there. The best way to climb a mountain is step by step, breath by breath at your own pace.”

This post is dedicated to my special friends, Theo, Lara and Charmaine. All of whom have lost their fathers in 2018. I’m here to share your pain even though I know I can’t lessen it.

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