Becoming an Adult Orphan

Not long after my father’s death, I met a brother and sister also recently bereaved. We stood on the bow of the boat with the cold winter air blowing in our faces, when the woman said, “So we are adult orphans now.” Her comment resonated deeply within me, although until that day I hadn’t heard the term used.

Recently my publicist asked me to write an article for ‘Adoption Today’ on becoming an adult orphan. Now eleven years after the death of my remaining parent, I still found the task daunting. I wrote it many times, uncertain of the result. Although the darkest valley of grief was behind me, describing the process was quite intense.

My personal experience can be summarized as:

  • deep grief
  • feelings of intense loneliness
  • wanting to go home
  • holding onto memories
  • unwillingness to step up and become the family matriarch

Life invited me to write ‘Schicksal’ and as such gave me renewed purpose.

Researching deeply into my family history and my parent’s lives in Europe, I gradually regained a platform upon which to stand. Until then, I failed to realize how fundamental our family life is to our sense of who we are. It underpins our existence but we rarely take time to acknowledge it. The unconditional love of a parent is like cement; it holds us together.

The following quotes ring true to me.

“Parents are like repositories of memory. They’re the only ones who hold certain memories of you as a child. It’s like a mirror — we define ourselves in terms of our relationships so our parents’ deaths challenge us to define who we are.” The Age 2003/09/07

Eleni Kyriacou describes it perfectly, “At 39 I’d become an adult orphan, a member of the club that nobody wants to join but most will. One parent dying was devastating; but when my mother died it changed me for ever. I felt anchorless, as if I was no longer anyone’s child. I may have looked the same but something inside me shifted.” The Guardian 2011/12/10

“What happens when the last parent dies is more than just the death of a single person. It is the end of that particular hierarchy in the family tree. It reminds the bereaved that they are, in fact, next. There is also the issue that there is no more “family home” to go to, and the remaining siblings must increase input into keeping the family together because there is no focal point for the family anymore, no family home to go to. Certainly, not that particular family – the birth family.”

Some sites describe ‘Adult orphan Syndrome’ and debate if it is treatable. I can not judge. I can only relate my personal experience. If you find yourself drowning, get help either from a friend, Beyond Blue Lifeline

Pick up the phone and talk to someone, please don’t suffer alone.

3 thoughts on “Becoming an Adult Orphan

  1. A friend said this 30 years ago when we were all in our 30s and her second parent died: “It’s very strange to be an orphan.” A statement it’s hard to forget, and easy to remember when it comes to you. Even helpful. Weren’t you angry, as well as needing sympathy? I don’t know of anyone who wasn’t. A long hard road, and the family history becomes one very deep way of restructuring, as you say.


  2. Very familiar. Anger was there too. And way back when a then-30-year old friend said: “It’s very strange being an orphan.” Something that reached deep, and resurfaced when it was my life. Surprised by how much the family history heals and remakes the world.


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