Life isn’t just a picture perfect Instagram feed. Behind the scenes life can be tough…. I’m pretty sure that hasn’t come as a surprise to you in your own life!
Unfortunately sometimes we might think that other people have a pretty perfect life if all we ever see are their curated social media spaces!!
To counteract this crazy culture of only sharing the good, the pretty, the perfect, the fluff, I’ve started a series called My Journey With…
It’s all about using my platform to get a bit more real and raw. To share the tough stuff, the real journeys, the messy behind-the-scenes stories.
Here’s today’s journey…
My Journey with…. Living as an Adult Orphan
My current situation as an Adult Orphan started when my Mom passed away in January of 2015. My Dad had passed away from cancer in August 1998 already.
I was working in the UK at the time and had to fly back home for the memorial service. It was a very strange experience. I was sad and in shock due to his death, but also happy to be home again – to see family and friends I’d been missing while abroad.
My brother advised me not to view my Dad’s body as his condition so deteriorated during the time I was away that he felt I would be too traumatised seeing him that way.
Now in retrospect I regret not seeing him as I missed the full experience of the finality of his death. Directly after the service I returned to the UK and it was literally a year later, once I’d moved back to SA, that the reality of his death hit me and I allowed myself a grieving process.
But life went on and, as it normally works with families, our focus as siblings was on my Mom. She was truly the glue that held our little family together. I have one brother and two sisters, all older than me.
When my Mom passed away two years ago, completely unexpectedly and quickly (within 2 days of going to hospital), I felt like my world came to a grinding halt. I also missed being with her at the end as I was still on way from Stellenbosch to Panorama Mediclinic when I got the call that she’d gone… I will always regret not being there earlier and somehow not sensing that her condition was a lot more serious than we had anticipated.
I think I went through a fairly healthy grieving process and allowed myself to cry and deal with the loss and her absence. But ever since then I’ve had such a sense of hopelessness and of feeling completely lost, floating without an anchor.
Someone told me about the concept of the ‘adult orphan’ and I read up about it. It really struck me as such a real thing that I was experiencing daily. As an adult losing an elderly parent we are often told that we can be grateful that our Mom / Dad had such a long and fruitful life and that they were ‘spared’ a long suffering, etc.
My Mom passed away at age 83. In principle that is true yes, but somehow people think that sense of gratitude must make us deal with the loss more easily. But that is just not the case. Yes, as adults we are expected to just get on with life as we have responsibilities and don’t have the luxury of shutting down and grieving for the loss of our life anchors. But until this point in our lives our parents have been our only buffer and protection from death. When they fall away, we have a sense that we’re next and we have to face that reality alone.
In my case the loneliness was quite acute as I don’t have a partner or children. I had no ‘soft place to land’ to find comfort. That made my pain and struggle more intense in a way, especially in that first year after her death. I found myself isolating a lot and just feeling a depth of despair. I often questioned the point of going on and realised that there is literally nothing in the future that I look forward to and nobody to build a legacy for. It is just me, my work and whatever joy I can find in my daily life and connections with friends. Losing my Mom had a huge impact and set me off on this adult orphan journey through life.
As siblings we also found our relationships were severely tested after my Mom’s passing. There was a lot of unnecessary conflict and drama which could have been avoided. It was almost a redefining of roles and finding one another in direct connection, rather than as members of a unit mainly kept together by my Mom. For the most part, things have now stabilised between us as siblings.
Is there anything you might have done differently before, during, or after, your tough life experience?
I would have isolated myself less and allowed close friends to come closer in support. I tend to shut down and not verbalise what I feel. In retrospect that open communication about the process would have made the journey of the past two years somewhat easier.
What, or who, helped you to overcome or push through this experience? A book, a person, an incident, therapy, medication or was it just simply time?
In part it was finding out about the term ‘adult orphan’ and reading online about it. Just realising that the overwhelming sense of feeling lost is actually normal and not just me going mad or entering an extended depressed state! It was a feeling that I could own and deal with. Somehow the term made it easier to get a grasp on the process. I didn’t use medication, but I definitely allowed myself the space and time to work through emotions.
Fortunately I do freelance work and have the luxury of working from home on a flexible schedule I determine myself. So, I just slowed the pace considerably and went into some kind of two hear hibernation! I’m still not completely out of it. I didn’t put too much pressure on myself to grow my business. I was literally just doing the basics, paying basic bills and living. I was surviving and definitely not thriving. I still need to move to that next level of finding joy again and determining my ‘why’ for moving forward.
Obviously there is not always a reason for going through such hard times in life, but now that you are further down the journey can you share any insights or personal growth that the experience taught you?
Cut yourself some slack! Don’t let anyone tell you what you ‘should’ be feeling or by when you should be feeling it. Your journey is unique. Be as real and open as possible and if you need to isolate and process through things on your own, then do that. You don’t need to share with lots of people about your process. But it is essential to have one or two close friends nearby who do have insight into what you’re going through. They would be able to sense when you’re coming too close to despair and need to be loved and supported back to a lighter space. I also used to journal a lot in the past and I realise now that it is part of the healing process and it is something I should do more of now, as I’m two years down the road on this particular journey.
Where do you find yourself now?
I still have a sense of being anchor-less and being single with no kids is a reality that I’m faced with every day. For the most part I function normally and get on with work. Yet, I’ve recently been encouraged by a couple of close friends to be more open about what I feel and to even speak to my Mom when I miss her. Not in a weird way… but just to put into words audibly what I feel. I do this now when I go to the memorial wall where my parents’ ashes have been placed. For some people that may have healing value. But life goes on and I know I will find my WHY and a new sense of adventure and the deep feeling of joy which I yearn for. Getting there. Slowly but surely.
If you or someone you love is struggling to come to terms with the death of a loved one or finding it hard to adjust to life as an Adult Orphan please seek help. There are people willing and able to help you.
LifeLine Southern Africa offers a 24-hour free and confidential telephone counselling service where trained counsellors help callers with challenges such as trauma, suicide, rape and relationship issues.
Helpline: 0861 322 322
SADAG (South African Depression and Anxiety Group) is open 7 days a week from 8am – 8pm. Contact them if you are needing a referral to a psychologist, psychiatrist or support group for Depression, Bipolar, ADHD, Trauma, OCD
Helpline: 011 234 4837/ 0800 20 50 26