Simply put, an adult orphan is an adult whose parents (both) have crossed over, transitioned, or passed away. This oddly named group of people is mostly unacknowledged in grief and loss articles or books. It’s considered a taboo topic when adults experience prolonged feelings of loss, sorrow and grief for their parents. There doesn’t seem to be the right space or time for adult orphans to express their grief without an awkward silence or an uncomfortable stare from others. This intolerance could cause the bereaved to further suppress their grief and sorrow; resulting in increased social isolation and possibly depression. Though most never hear these words spoken blatantly, the adult orphan may sense pressure from others to “get over it” or “move on” with their lives.
In our ‘youth oriented culture’, the loss of elders and more specifically, parents of adults, don’t get much time and attention. This loss is treated as an inevitable ‘life transition’; one in which we must all journey through easily and … well silently.
Here are 10 ways adult orphans suffer:
They often suffer in silence: Adult orphans have learned to suffer in silence. They suffer alone in their own private mourning spaces known only to them. Many suffer for years without ever seeking help or counseling.
They wear ‘the mask’ well: They often feel ridiculous for missing and yearning for their parents presence. Adult orphans are known to ‘fake it’ or ‘make light’ of their grief in social settings in an effort to appear ‘healed’. They wear this mask, mostly to help family and friends feel comfortable and at ease.
They often feel misunderstood and judged: They often doubt that loved ones, and in some cases therapists, will understand their grief. They feel that people will judge them and wonder why an adult can’t seem to cope without their parents. The adult orphan may feel uncomfortable and are often judged by others if they mention their parents " too much" in social settings and even on social media outlets.
They don’t want to be a burden: Adult orphans often feel like a burden when grief reactions unexpectantly arise. They “pretend” everything is okay and learn to push their emotions deep down in order to function in a society that doesn’t allow extended time and patience for the bereaved. Like most, they accept that they were given ‘sufficient time’ to grieve during and immediately after the funeral and anything more is burdensome. Adult orphans would rather appear strong and unyielding than to be a burden to others.
They may secretly feel sadness during major life milestones: Huge milestones often reignite a yearning for their parents. While everyone is celebrating the purchase of a new home, a job promotion or even a child’s graduation from high school, the adult orphan is silently wishing their parents were there to help celebrate. They may recall past conversations with their parents about a desire to attend their grandchild’s graduation or birthday party for example; however, these past memories often stir up a sense of loss and despair.
Starting a family may be bittersweet: When adult orphans begin to have children of their own, it is a mixed bag of both joy and pain. For those starting a new family, the realization that the new baby will never meet their grandparents is painful. For those with young children, the adult orphan wonders if their parents' memories will fade and disappear overtime, leaving the children without a family legacy. The adult orphan accepts that feelings of loss must be put aside in order to raise their family. If not checked, the adult orphan may have a prolonged struggle with creating a balance between self-care and parenting.
They may feel that their childhood history has been erased: Parents hold sacred memories and information from our past. When parents die, the adult orphan may sense a deep chasm in their own history and very own existence.The adult orphan soon realizes that the memory of their own childhood may fade with time. They fear that no one will remember their very first words or the first time they fell off their tricycle. With their parents gone, they question who will hold the key to their past?
They may feel incomplete because of missed opportunities or unanswered questions: Adult orphans often experience a sense of remorse and regret for not doing certain things with or for their parents. They regret not having asked vital questions that they now wish they had. Adult orphans may come down on themselves for not living up to promises like traveling together or making a special purchase for their parents. They may feel that basic information about their upbringing and milestones goes missing and unanswered forever.
They may be intolerant to others who act disrespectful toward their parents: Adult orphans may get really jumpy toward their friends, colleagues or neighbors who don’t value their own parents. They tend to have little tolerance for complaints or maltreatment of other people's parents. It bothers adult orphans when people describe their own parents as “busy bodies”, “nosey”, “overbearing”, etc. Adult orphans are usually hyper vigilant when it comes to honoring parents. Now that they no longer have parents of their own, they typically have a heightened sense of reverence and respect for the sanctity of parenthood.
They may feel a sense of doom: Adult orphans whose parents haved died relatively young, say in their 50’s-60’s, may feel a sense of fear and doom about their own mortality. Adult orphans often get anxious as they approach the age(s) of their deceased parents and then silently wonder if they will outlive their parent’s age or succumb to the same fate as their parents.
Of course not every adult orphan experiences all, or even some, of what was shared above. In fact, most are able to go through the grieiving process with little or no problems at all. They engage with others about their parents freely and unapologetically sharing funny stories, stories of triumph, and stories of pain and suffering without being thrown back into grief. Many adult orphans find it easy to laugh, cry and show a full range of emotions about their parents without feeling judged, ridiculed or burdensome. Even the term ‘adult orphan’ is not embraced by some. To be honest, I don’t like the term very much myself but it seems to define this specialized group with clarity. My parents have both transitioned. My mother, when I was a freshman in college and my dad just months after my first child. I didn’t know the term 'adult orphan' then, but I know it now and it has been helpful to know that I belong to a specialized group which means that I am not alone and neither are you.
Of course my list is not exhaustive. There may be many more signs of suffering that I haven’t named here. However, the most important thing is for each of us to check in with people who lost both parents (or the solo parent that raised them alone) and to recognize some of the signs that your loved one might be suffering silently. Please reach out to them and encourage them to share stories about their parents. Allow them time and space to do so. Laugh with them. Cry with them. I promise that doing so will be healing for the both of you.
Adult orphans should seek help if needed. It may be a good idea to seek out grief groups that work specifically with adults who are orphans; however any grief group that meets your needs may be helpful to the healing process. Individual grief therapy is also available. Compassionate therapists will not judge you; they will not judge your unique journey. Look for a therapist that understands adult orphans, one who is an adult orphan themselves, or one who works with this population.
Even with the gaping hole that was once in my heart space for years, I now feel more alive and complete than in years past. My heart has healed years ago and the emptiness is now filled with meaning and love. My heart and my life is continously filled with self-love, the love of my husband, children, family and close friends.
My loss is no longer a loss, but a new beginning. Feel free to allow me to help you feel whole again too.
Gena Golden Cht, MSW, LCSW Inner Coach Counseling, LLC