On Becoming an ‘Orphan’

Posted on July 11, 2013 by ECR Louisville in Blog, Caregiver Education, Education, Elder Law, Financial Services, Geriatric Care Management, Home Care Non-Medical

On Becoming an ‘Orphan’

By PAULA SPAN

Paula Span with her father, Murray Span, in 2011.Suzanne DeChillo/The New York TimesPaula Span with her father, Murray Span, in 2011.

I was lucky enough — I do see it that way — to be with my parents when each died. My mother gave us more warning: a couple of strokes, a cancer diagnosis, three months of hospice care, a two-week final vigil, death in her own bed at age 80.

My father was 90, but he was still so vital and healthy that his death from peritonitis and sepsis came as a greater shock when it happened last December.

From this vantage point, it seems to me that losing your last parent is a different experience. How could it not be? You’ve been orphaned.

The word loses that Dickensian aura of tragedy when you are decades into adulthood, but it still influences your sense of self. Today’s longer lifespans means we have come to think it normal to remain someone’s child until we ourselves are elderly, or close. When we no longer are, something profound shifts.

“Regardless of the relationship, there’s something about the meaning of generations,” Barbara Moscowitz, senior geriatric social worker at Massachusetts General Hospital, said when I called to talk about adult orphans. “When there’s no patriarch or matriarch, you’re the eldest generation.”

In her practice and her support groups, Ms. Moscowitz sometimes sees former caregivers grow anxious about their own mortality once the people who seemed to stand between them and it are gone.

 

I haven’t noticed much of that in my own case, but I have certainly been aware that with your surviving parent goes a significant chunk of your personal history. No one else knew you from the moment of birth, and anything from the name of the family spaniel to the identities of the people in that faded photo may be beyond retrieval.

In my case, personal geography will probably fade, too. The small factory town in southern New Jersey where I grew up, and the neighboring farms and communities, are places I visited only as long as at least one parent lived there. After my father’s grave marker is unveiled this winter, following Jewish tradition, I’ll have scant reason to drive those 120 miles again.

What we miss — a nickname nobody else uses, perhaps, or an inside joke nobody else finds funny — depends on our pasts and our relationships. My friend Ilze’s parents emigrated from Europe, and when her mother died this spring, she realized, “I don’t have anyone left to speak Latvian with.”

We also may not know what to do with that impulse that led us to become caregivers. After one parent dies, we typically turn our attention to the other, helping the survivor through the grief and the transition, then at some point arranging the care he or she will need.

To finally relinquish that role may come as a relief or feel like deep loss, but either way it is a major change. I have finally wrapped up most of the details of my father’s small estate, so in a couple of months there will be nothing left that I can or should do for either parent. It will be the first time in 15 to 20 years that that is true, and some former caregivers find it unsettling, as my colleague Judith Graham wrote in March.

Let me acknowledge the vast disparities in our lives and our responsibilities. Some adult children lost a parent at such a young age that they never became caregivers, and some families have seen such anger and bitterness that relationships were severed long before death. I miss my father, but the grief that a California reader described to me sounds very different, probably because her mother had lived with her for 10 years. “I feel no lifting of a burden, only a huge void,” she said.

I wonder, too, if some sibling relationships falter when the second parent dies, or if they get stronger. Ms. Moscowitz said that after her mother died five years ago: “I didn’t know what my relationship with my brother would be, or if it would be. For as long as I’d been an adult, he and I had built our relationship around caregiving.” For years, the first words of any phone call were, “Everything’s O.K.” Now, Ms. Moscowitz said, “We just say, ‘Hello.’ ”

The variations are endless, and I would like to hear what being an adult orphan has meant to you.

One sorrowful implication: For those who have long struggled to try to forge better relationships with their parents, being orphaned ends that possibility for good. “If they have not felt loved, if the relationship has been difficult, they may have held onto that wish even if it’s a fantasy,” Ms. Moscowitz said. “Fantasies are very powerful.”

She is no longer surprised when a person suffers tremendous grief after the death of a parent who treated him or her miserably. “The feeling of being truly bereft may not be only about what just happened,” she said. “It could be an expression of a lifetime of what one was waiting for and never had.”

Fortunately, my parents were both easygoing, affectionate, nonjudgmental people who always let my sister and me know that we were loved and approved of. And they knew that we loved and honored them. As I said, we were lucky.

Paula Span is the author of “When the Time Comes: Families With Aging Parents Share Their Struggles and Solutions.”