It has been a little more than a month since my mom died … leaving me and my two younger brothers as orphans. At first, saying this sounded ridiculous to me—a 43-year-old woman with a 6-year-old son calling herself an orphan? The word “orphan” had always made me think of young children … book characters like Anne Shirley or Sara Crewe. Not a grown-up like myself. But I clearly remember my dad turning to his sister after my grandmother was buried and saying “We’re orphans now” and bursting into tears. At the time, I was 27-years-old, and it seemed odd to me that my dad—a grown man who had three almost grown children of his own—would react in this way. But now I know EXACTLY what he was feeling.
I just looked up the definition of orphan, and the most common definitions are:
- a child who has lost both parents
- someone or something who lacks support or care or supervision
- the first line of a paragraph that is set as the last line of a page or column
- deprived of parents
- a young animal without a mother.
Well, I’m obviously not a piece of type stuck on a page somewhere. (But did you know there is another typesetting term called “widow”? In most word processing programs like Microsoft Word, you can turn on “Widow/Orphan Control” to limit them. Wouldn’t it be wonderful if Microsoft somehow perfected the art of controlling widows and orphans in real-life instead of just on the computer screen? If God—in whatever form He or She takes—could somehow choose an option in the Great Word Processing Screen in the Sky and select “Widow/Orphan Control” and suddenly I had my parents back and my mom had her husband?)
And I guess I can’t really call myself a “child who has lost both parents.” (Though deep inside, losing both your parents immediately makes you feel like a young child.) But I definitely feel like someone deprived of parents.
When I lost my dad, it was upsetting and tragic and horrible. But, I realize now, that loss was tempered by the fact that I still had my mother. I still had a parent in the world … one of the people who brought me into this world, taught me how to move and be in it and served as my foundation for as long as I’ve existed. When my dad died, I cried and mourned and grieved, but I still had my mother. My mom. My mommy. I still had a parent left in the world. And, to be quite honest, my mother was always more of a touchstone for us kids than my dad. My dad was always the funny one, the supportive one (“Sounds like a great idea, Jen! Go for it!”), the wacky one. My mom, however, was the one you went to when you had a real problem that needed to be figured out or discussed. She was the one that challenged us and pushed us and told us the things we didn’t want to hear.
And now she is gone and I feel like the bottom dropped out of my world.
I feel unstable and unsure of myself. Not completely confident in my ability to “stand alone” in the world without my mom to back me up. In the past month, I realized that I’ve always truly believed in the back of mind that no matter what happened to me, I would have my mom to help deal with it. For example, if—God forbid—something happened to Mr. Jenners and he died, I knew it would be horrible and difficult but I always imagined that, as bad as it got, I could always go to my mom for sanctuary. She was the one person I always viewed as there for me no matter what. My mom was my protection against a host of imagined catastrophes: homelessness, widowhood, bankruptcy.
But now that sanctuary is gone, and it frightens me in ways that I can’t fully express.
Although in my brain I know I’m a functionong, reliable, resilient, capable grown-up, inside I feel like an uncertain, immature, needy child who needs her mommy.
In the past month, I’ve gone crazy rearranging the house—the Little One came home from school one day to find the entire living room moved around. I decided we didn’t need a formal dining room and began converting it to a den. I moved all the furniture in the Little One’s room. I upended the basement. When Mr. Jenners made arrangements for us to have a “date night” and see a movie and have dinner, I asked if we could got to Ikea to look for den furniture instead. He agreed. I told him: “I don’t know why I feel so compelled to move everything and create this den and rearrange stuff.” And he said, as if it was obvious, “Well, your world just fell apart and is all disordered and you’re trying to fix it but you’re doing it by moving furniture.”
His insight stunned me, but I knew he was right. All my moving of furniture and changing things is a mad, misguided attempt to fix something in my life that can’t be fixed. I’m literally rearranging my life … as if moving the furniture will somehow move the foundation that I lost with my parents’ deaths back into place.
Almost every night since my mom died, I’ve dreamed of her or my dad. Sometimes the dreams are fairly innocuous—my mom and dad and I sitting in a room and just talking. But in the dream, I KNOW the significance of having my parents there … it is like I’m watching myself in my dream talking to my parents and I just soak it all up and wish it would never end. And then I wake up and it is like losing them all over again, and I start my day with this big heavy weight in my heart.
In another dream, I dream that I am with my mom and brothers and that we had lost my dad … but somehow he had survived and struggled back to us through the mountains and we are amazed … “How come no one could find you all this time???!!!” … and so so happy. And then I wake up and realize I’ve lost both of them all over again.
In another dream, I am with my dad but it is mom who has died and I don’t know what to do because my dad doesn’t seem to be reacting “right.” But I follow him around like a little puppy because, once again, I’m aware at some level that this is a dream and I’m so hungry to see my dad.
And it goes on and on .. all these variations of being with my parents, losing my parents, losing one of my parents and having the other one. I feel like my unconscious is trying so hard to find a way for this loss to make sense. To make it “okay.” In everyday life, I’m functioning and seem happy and normal. I’m doing all the things I usually do. I rarely break down in tears. But, each night, I struggle in my dreams to accept the loss of my parents and I wake feeling like I’ve been punched in the stomach.
So many of you have been so supportive and concerned about how I’ve been coping so I wanted to share a bit about what I’ve been experiencing. I also wanted to write this post for those of you who are suffering similar losses. I know it helps to feel like you aren’t the only one who is experiencing a loss and feeling off-kilter. I keep saying to people “I feel like I’ve been cut adrift.” And that makes so much sense to me … my parents were my anchor in the stormy seas of life, and losing them has severed me from that anchor and cast my ship out to sea.
Yes … I’m OK. But, at another level, I’m not OK. I know it is going to take a long time to fully comprehend and accept the loss of my parents … it really is like losing a limb. I feel like I need to learn a whole new way of living and moving and being in the world.
Thank you to all of you who have reached out to me with letters and gifts and cards and e-mails. I truly appreciate your concern, caring and compassion, and your words and thoughts have been so helpful as I struggle to come to terms with this difficult “rite of passage.” I know this won’t be the last time I write about this topic so bear with me as I figure things out.
Also, I wanted to share a photo of my mom that we found after she passed away. It is the most beautiful photo of her. Apparently, she had recently had her picture taken for the church directory, and my brother found four copies of this photo tucked away in her desk. We assume she was planning to give us a copy at some point. When I got my copy in the mail a few weeks ago, I just burst into tears. Seeing her looking so radiant and lovely and filled with life just rips my heart out. This is a photo of a woman who should be living life RIGHT NOW. I miss you so so much, Mom!