real life

'We are next in line': the grief of becoming an adult orphan.

My friend David is big and tall, strong and determined. He’s taken on governments, unions and businesses and he sets public opinion for a living.

Yet when his father died, many years after his mother, we walked along the cliff top over the beach and with tears in his eyes, he said he was adrift. He was an orphan, with no link to his past and no barrier to his own future mortality.

At the time, although I heard his words and felt his pain, I didn’t understand his orphaned state. Even when my mother died soon after, almost 5 years to the day after my father, I did not at first feel orphaned.

Gael Jennings.

Grief is a funny thing— it is amorphous, elusive; it takes on shapes we don’t foresee, and hijacks us in forms we thought were friendly. The glimpse of a beautiful bush from a car brings pain because she used to grow it with pride.

At first, you think you’re surprisingly fine. You’re completely absorbed by the voyage you’ve accompanied them on, down into the passage of death, your fingertips touching theirs until, like wisps of mist, they dissolve.

Your parent still travels with you; your heart is inside them, taken with them, held close by them, as theirs is in you.

This love affair proceeds calmly for months. Their presence is everywhere. The weft of their love still bears you. At times, small obstacles cause disproportionate angst. Discomfort sits like a boil beneath the skin and is unexpectedly lanced in gushing outbursts by traffic jams and kind strangers.

Gael with daughter Grace.

Time passes, work continues, rituals close like water over their absence. But somehow, the fridge is hard to fill. Appointments are mysteriously forgotten. The car is a trial to drive. Films can’t be reached. In bed, you toss, your heart soggy with the pathos of their dreams, their life stories, their deep appreciation of life well lived, of sun and friends, garden and spouse, now all finished and gone, with them.

Then one day, you notice your hands - from slim and firm, they are becoming embryonic copies of mum's. Your thighs have the look of hers as you bathed her in those final months. You falter on a step because you’re too lazy to take your reading glasses off, and the grief takes your breath away, because she, blinded by macular, faltered too.

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Then one day, you notice your hands - from slim and firm, they are becoming embryonic copies of mums.

And in this way, we move through the many griefs of losing our parents. They are indeed silenced for ever; they won’t know earthly joys again, and we have lost them. We are no longer someone’s child; It is now our turn as elder, we are next in line for ageing and death. And we are orphans, forever without the ones who loved and knew us best, our childhood buried with them.

I arrived at the mortality bit before the orphan bit. From being active, confident and ‘young’, I took care on difficult descents, looked for jowls, cried over the past and reviewed my wardrobe. Thankfully my more sensible friends (and my daughters) took me firmly by the metaphorical elbow and steered me back on track. Nonetheless, I am conscious for the first time that I will soon be old and that my death is inevitable; I can see the future because I saw it happen to my parents. I now focus on each and every day with the mindful gratitude of a zealot.

'I arrived at mortality before the orphan bit.'

The deep disquiet of being orphaned, infecting those of us who have lost both parents, came last. I was talking with the wise and wonderful mother of my daughter’s best friend at the daughter’s kitchen tea (veering from a discussion of the perplexing trend of feminist daughters getting married and, indeed, having kitchen teas, and decided they are seeking ritual), and she remarked that our disquiet may stem from the fact that when we lose our parents, we lose our ‘home’.

Our parents are our home; that ephemeral place, like a benevolent Brigadoon, that lives on after we have left it, bouying our adult exploits. There it remains, in them, a safety net against the existential darkness of life’s meaning. Having parents means someone other than us holds our primitive memories, making them real, keeping us anchored. In a continuous lineage, we have a place, we are their children, their kin, we belong. When they die, we are left without our staunchest champions and our home dissolves in a puff of smoke. We have to deal without.

And so it goes.

Loss, gratitude, finally growing up on the verge of becoming grandparents. A last lesson leant from mum and dad. When David and I walk by the beach, instead of talking about our parents, we plot politics, discuss our kids, the sand and the waves, and feel the sun on our faces.

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