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The Grief I Feel as an Orphan Whose Parents Are Still Alive

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Editor's Note

If you’ve experienced emotional or sexual abuse as a child, the following post could be potentially triggering. You can contact the National Sexual Assault Telephone Hotline at 1-800-656-4673.

Recently I came across an article about the grief of losing your parents in adulthood, and how it makes one suddenly feel orphaned and alone in the world. I have known many who have lost mothers and fathers with whom they’ve shared incredible loving relationships. I know the void this loss creates for them is both devastating and an enormous adjustment. But this article got me to thinking, “why don’t we talk about what it feels like to feel orphaned by parents who are very much alive and well…but whom we have either lost due to estrangement, or never truly had because they were incapable of being caring, loving parents to begin with?”

Though it shames me to admit this, I often wish that my parents were dead. Knowing that death is final and that they are forever gone would provide me the opportunity to grieve and move on in a much easier way, than knowing that they are perfectly alive. And that despite all the wishes I may make to change how they behave, they will never be capable of being the parents I need or needed as a child. I am constantly reminded of what I never had by seeing photos of them engaging in their daily lives with others, or by having to continue handling their affairs because they are incapable of doing so. This kind of grief isn’t black and white. It’s murky like the churning waters of a tsunami, filled with debris, chaos, uncertainty and overwhelming vulnerability.

I’ve always known that I wasn’t like other children. From the time I was little, I felt less like a child and more like an adult. The responsible, little “old soul” who would do whatever she was asked and who avoided getting in any kind of trouble. My parents divorced when I was 3. My mother told me she got pregnant by accident and had decided the day she got married that if things didn’t work out, she’d leave my dad because all she wanted was a baby anyway. And she did.

I didn’t see him again until I was a teenager and never had much of a relationship going forward. It’s been 21 years since I last saw him at my wedding. I often wonder if he missed being a father, or if he felt trapped into fatherhood by my impulsive mother. I will never know the answer to that question but it haunts me every time I see children with their fathers; hugging them, comforting them and supporting them in ways that mine never did. It’s a heartache that never goes away.

My mother — while very much present — struggled with her own mental health issues. Her impulsivity, immaturity and incapacity to care for her own needs left me to be the parent in our relationship. The onus was on me to ensure she was safe, healthy and at least remotely emotionally stable so I could feel somewhat cared for. My life often felt chaotic, terrifying and smothering as a child. As an adult, no amount of distance between us could cut the proverbial umbilical chord. It was as though my mother was living her life vicariously through me, and I constantly felt as though I was being rendered invisible by her presence.

Four years ago, I became her power of attorney and took control of her finances when it became apparent she was not able to manage on her own. By that point, she was tens of thousands of dollars in debt due to her gambling and shopping addiction and collections agencies were calling dozens of times daily. As her only child and always the responsible one, I agreed to take over. But this caused me to realize how much I despised her and how much I resented always being her parent. I began struggling with panic attacks and feeling like my life was crumbling on top of me. So I began seeing a therapist.

Through much examination, we determined how enmeshed I have always been with my mother and how covertly incestuous she has always been. Despite many attempts at establishing healthy boundaries with her, I realized that she could never change and my only option was to go no contact with her with the exception of handling her business affairs. At that point I found myself feeling very much like an orphan; parentless, alone and filled with sadness at the recognition that I never had real, healthy good enough parents.

My therapist said that in order to heal from that trauma I’d have to grieve the loss of the parents I never had. But how? How does one grieve something that isn’t gone? How does one reconcile mourning the loss of someone who is very much still a pain in my ass on a regular basis? There’s no support group for orphans like me. There’s no manual or self-help book. We are the ones who grieve in silence, feeling every bit as empty and abandoned as those who have lost their parents through death. Yet we have no outlet through which to mourn in a safe and understanding environment. All we can do is feel all the same feelings of loss and try to pretend that we are fine, because nobody else understands what we mean when they can physically see the parents we are mourning.

So for now I continue to grieve, hiding behind my shame of feeling like there must have been something wrong with me to have deserved to never get good enough parents. And hiding my grief from others for fear of judgment and comments about how blood is thicker than water and how I should just forgive and forget. It’s an agonizing cross for anyone to bear alone. At least I have my therapist to guide me, but I wish more people understood what this was like and would extend the kind of compassion and sympathy they do toward those who lose a loved one by death. I sit with the silence of my grief, empty-handed. No flowers, no cards, no phone calls, nothing. Just an orphan.

If you can relate, let Monika know in the comments below.

Photo submitted by contributor.

Originally published: April 10, 2019
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