On a bitterly cold April morning in 1998, my father died of a heart attack. The shock of his death was like a punch to the stomach. It was the first bereavement I'd experienced up close. For weeks, a cloak of confusion, rage and disbelief descended. By contrast, my mother's death, five years later, held no shock. It arrived clearly signposted, with a predictability that was agonising: diagnosis, scan, operation, false hope, radiotherapy, hospice, morphine, death.
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.
A friend likens being an adult orphan to being the only tree left standing in a forest. I know what she means. For me it's as if my roots have been hacked away: my parents are the reason I'm here, what held me up. They had been the one stable point during my whole life, the constant. Yes, I'm an adult and can stand alone. But there are times I still need my mother and father, times I feel very alone. I have a lovely husband and wonderful friends. I'm grateful for all of them. But they're not my parents.
My mum, Elpida, and my dad, Yiannis, came to Britain from Cyprus, separately, and met in London in the 1950s. They'd both been very poor in Cyprus, but here they had a chance to make a living. They arrived with no qualifications, no English and no money. What they did have was a strong work ethic and a lot of hope. Their lives were spent working in factories and, eventually, they were able to provide a decent home and a stable life for me and my sister, Kayti.
They weren't young when they died – in their 70s – but somehow their ageing had taken me by surprise. I remember visiting my dad one day just after he'd washed his hair and hadn't had time to slick it down with his usual squirt of Brylcreem. It was almost completely grey. When had this happened? When had he got old? The Brylcreem had always made his hair look much darker, and we used to look at old photos and joke about his "movie star" looks, while my mum rolled her eyes. To accept your parents have aged is to accept that you have too, and I suppose I've never really felt my age. But after they died I was faced with the uncomfortable reality of my own mortality. Of course, my brain knew that my parents wouldn't live for ever. My heart, however, hadn't quite caught up.
Eight years on, and it still affects me. When I hear someone whinge about visiting their parents at Christmas, it's all I can do not to groan out loud. I want to shake them (and possibly give them a good, hard slap). I want to say, "Don't you realise how lucky you are?" But, of course, I don't. Instead, I make some comment about how they should enjoy it while they can, as both of my parents have died and there's nothing I'd love more than to be in their position. An uncomfortable silence usually follows along with a muttered, "Yes, I guess you're right," and a swift change of subject.
If discussing death is still taboo in 21st-century Britain, multiply that by 10 and you get an idea of how people react when you say you've lost both parents. They just don't know what to do with that information. (You don't need to do anything, by the way – a simple "I'm sorry to hear that" is always appreciated.)
There's an awkwardness, almost embarrassment, attached to being an adult orphan – not for me, for others. I find this frustrating and stupid. In a day and age when it seems no subject is off limits for scrutiny – sex, addictions, which celeb did what to who – this most everyday of subjects is avoided. I don't wear an "adult orphan" badge. I don't go round saying, "Hello, I'm Eleni and both of my parents are dead." But if it does come up in conversation I don't shy away from it either. I believe that we're all more the same than we are different, and life stages such as this are what bring us together.
Yet I can almost taste other people's aversion if I broach the subject. As if it's bad form to talk about it at all. Maybe this is connected to the fact that we all know we'll have to confront adult orphanhood at some point. My personal experience, by the way, is that the middle-aged are the worst. People in their 40s just don't want to discuss death or bereavement, as if by talking about it, they may catch it too. Perhaps it's too close to home and they don't want to see what is waiting for them down the road. Children, on the other hand, seem more relaxed. When my eldest son saw photos of my parents he said, "Yeah, they look really old!" as if it all made sense to him. And the young will ask the two questions most of us want answers to: how old were they? What did they die of? They try to make sense of it. I've found that most people over 60 seem more relaxed to have these conversations, too, perhaps because many have been through it.
When my parents died there were some very good friends, great family members and lovely colleagues, all of whom rallied round. But there were also some hideous experiences. And unfortunately they tended to leave a more lasting impression. I remember going to work in a particular office a few weeks after my mother had died. It was a place I was known, where I'd worked shifts now and then, and where they knew what had happened as I'd worked there during my mum's illness. On my first day back, nobody said a word. Nothing. In fact, they didn't mention it the whole week. It was like that Fawlty Towers episode when John Cleese runs around yelling: "Don't mention the war!" Only one person acknowledged my bereavement, as we were buying our sandwiches one lunchtime. Adult orphans are expected to just get on with their grief quietly. We're allowed a week's grace at the most, then after that we're expected to have dealt with it. To have got over it.
To anyone who hasn't lost their parents, here's some news: you never get over it. I'm not trying to startle you. It's a fact. You get through it, yes, and you'll probably get used to it, but you don't get over it. A piece of your life jigsaw has been removed and, however much you rearrange the other pieces, they never quite fit in the same way again. That's not necessarily a bad thing. For me it makes complete sense that everything changes; if we accept that, in some profound way, our parents help shape who we are then surely their deaths will affect us deeply too?
A year after they died, my husband and I adopted our two sons, aged four and six. There's nothing quite like parental death swiftly followed by motherhood to really make you examine how you were brought up. It made me think about the values I wanted to instil in my children and what I would do differently. Despite the grief, I would say that the past eight years have been good for many reasons but especially because of the arrival of our children. So there have been many moments of joy and I think I appreciate those moments more now because I've also experienced the lows.
The difficult times are still there, but they ebb and flow and I've learned to accept them. Birthdays can be hard, as can the anniversary of a parent's death. Not every time, not every year, but occasionally. There's no rhyme or reason to when it might happen. I can be fine for months, maybe a year, then the smallest thing can make my heart dip; seeing a young child with grandparents sometimes does it because my parents never met our children. My friend, Nicole, gets tearful when she hears the Strictly Come Dancing theme tune because her mother loved the programme and they would always discuss it afterwards. Last week I was walking along the road and heard an elderly Greek man chatting loudly on his mobile phone. Most of my family lives in Cyprus, so to hear anyone speak Greek immediately takes me back to my parents. They were my link to my heritage and now they've gone, it feels as if that's fading too.
Grief can do strange things to you. An emotion that often rears its head is envy. It's not something I'm proud of, but it's there all the same. It usually burns low, but increases slightly in certain situations. My in-laws, who have always been supportive and couldn't be lovelier, are a gentle reminder of what I have lost. Family gatherings can be hard. I envy my husband his relationship with his parents and the fact that he can call them for a catch-up whenever he wants. Stupid, I know. Like a child stamping her foot, declaring, "It's not fair! I want that too!"
My parents were by no means perfect and I wasn't the ideal daughter. There had been some huge rows over the years, mostly about my unwillingness to do what was expected. ("Good" Greek girls do not leave home, buy their own flat, shack up with a boyfriend and then, when they – finally! – decide to marry him years later, refuse to do so in a Greek church.) But despite all the conflicts I think that, overall, we eventually had a good relationship. And over time, that relationship with them has continued. Because despite my initial feeling that, once they were both dead, I was no longer anyone's daughter, I now realise that isn't true. I'm still their daughter: I always will be. And they'll always be my parents. I carry them with me each day.
Cruse provides free support to anyone affected by bereavement, cruse.org.uk
Grieving the death of a loved one is an individual process. Some caregivers initially feel numb and disoriented, then endure pangs of yearning for the person who has died. Others feel anxious and have trouble sleeping, perhaps dwelling on old arguments or words they wish they had expressed. Sudden outbursts of tears are common in grief, triggered by memories or reminders of the loved one. Even those who are confident that their loved one is with the Lord struggle with sadness over their loss. Not all people grieve the same way or for the same length of time, but dealing with grief is essential in order to come to terms with the loss of your loved one and move on with your life. To do that, you need to be honest in your grieving and ask God the tough questions that help us mature (Read Lamentations 3).
The circumstances of your elder's death can affect your grief. If a loved one suffered with a long illness, death is often considered a blessing. For the families of Alzheimer's patients, mourning begins with the onset of the disease, long before death occurs. Because of the time spent in anticipating death, this kind of bereavement differs from the intense grief over someone who dies following a brief illness, surgery or accident.
Over time, the intensity of your grief will likely subside, but do not try to rush the grieving process. And do not expect your feelings and emotions to be like anyone else's. God made you unique, and your grieving process will be a personal journey. But keep in mind that the weight of grief is lighter when shared. Support from others can help you to handle the aftermath of your loss. God also offers comfort in times of bereavement. Jesus said, "I will not leave you comfortless: I will come to you" (John 14:18 KJV).
Coping After the Funeral
When the funeral is a memory and your relatives and friends have returned to their busy lives, you may wonder how you are going to cope. If grief threatens to overwhelm you, try saying with the psalmist, "My soul is weary with sorrow; strengthen me according to your word" (Psalm 119:28 NIV). Cling to God's promises as you work through your grief. "He gives power to the weak, and to those who have no might He increases strength" (Isaiah 40:29 NKJV).
But how does a person "get over" the death of a loved one? How long after a loss should one still be grieving? It is generally agreed that there are four "tasks of mourning" every bereaved person must accomplish to be able to effectively deal with the death of a loved one:
Accept the reality of the loss. Experience the pain of grief. Adjust to an environment in which the deceased is missing. Take the emotional energy you would have spent on the one who died and reinvest it in another relationship.
Accepting the Loss
The first task, accepting the reality of the loss, involves overcoming the natural denial response and realizing that the person is physically dead. This can be facilitated by viewing the body after death, attending funeral and burial services, and visiting the place where the body is laid to rest. In addition, talking about the deceased person or the circumstances surrounding the death can be very helpful.
It is necessary to grieve the physical finality of losing a loved one and come to grips with the fact that you will not see that person again in this life. But the spiritual life goes on. If your loved one was a professing Christian, not only will you see him again in the life to come, but he is now in an immeasurably better place — in the Lord's presence, with no more pain or fear or sorrow. This is true for all who die in the Lord. "'And God will wipe away every tear from their eyes; there shall be no more death, nor sorrow, nor crying. There shall be no more pain, for the former things have passed away.' Then He who sat on the throne said, 'Behold, I make all things new'" (Rev. 21:4-5 NKJV). Therefore, we mourn for ourselves, not for our Christian loved ones. They are where we yearn to be.
Experience the Pain
The second task, experiencing the pain of grief, also confronts the denial that is so common in grieving persons. Many people try to avoid pain by bottling up their emotions or rejecting the feelings they are having. They may avoid places and circumstances that remind them of their loved one. They may try to take shortcuts through the grieving process, not admitting to the feelings of anger or denial that usually exist. However, the only way to move through grief is to move through it. It is impossible to escape the pain associated with mourning. The person who avoids grieving will eventually suffer from some form of depression, or even physical problems. Fully experiencing the pain — most often through tears — provides relief. Jesus wept over the loss of His friend Lazarus, even though He knew He was about to raise him from the dead; we, too, have permission to weep.
We all experience pain in this life, and the only thing worse than the pain of losing a loved one is the pain of never loving or being loved in the first place. In a way, the pain of grief is a gift to us because it is evidence of the presence of love.
The third task, adjusting to an environment in which the deceased is missing, requires the grieving individual to assume some of the social roles performed by the deceased, or to find others who will. For example, a grieving spouse may need help with household chores and cooking. Someone who never learned to drive must either learn how to drive or find other forms of transportation. The alternative is social withdrawal and sitting home alone. A person who dreads coming home to an empty house may find comfort in adopting a friendly pet.
The final task is taking the emotional energy you would have spent on the one who died and reinvesting it in another relationship or relationships. Many people feel disloyal or unfaithful if they withdraw emotionally from their deceased loved one. But the goal is not to forget the person who has died; it is to finally reach the point where you can remember your loved one without experiencing disabling grief.
Some find it impossible to invest in new relationships because they are unwilling to take the risk of feeling another loss. Others were so immersed in caregiving that, now that their loved one has died, they are not sure what to do. Still, investing time in friendships is important for many reasons. Old friends can reminisce about your loved one and also give you encouragement and permission to rebuild your life. New friendships allow you to being again as a person with a future — not just a widow, widower or survivor. For some, getting involved in a volunteer ministry provides structure, a sense of purpose and built-in companionship. Others swap phone numbers with new friends from grief-recovery groups.
Do not feel like you have to hurry to this stage. If attending a lighthearted party seems incongruous with your current state of mind, perhaps having coffee and conversation with a good friend would be a refreshing change of pace. Many surviving spouses enjoy focusing more time and energy on children, grandchildren and great grandchildren.
Do not rush into making major decisions or changes that could add stress to your life. Give yourself time and space to grieve. If at all possible, do not move for at least one year. You might benefit from setting aside an hour every day or two to "work" on grieving, especially if your loved one's death was recent. To do this, turn to caring family members or friends for support. Read a good devotional book, such as Streams in the Desert by L.B. Cowman (Zondervan 1997) or Quiet Moments for Caregivers by Betty Free (Tyndale 2002). You may also want to look in a Bible concordance for words like comfort or hope. As you look up the verses, meditate on each one and record it in a prayer journal. Allow God's healing words to sink in. Psalm 94:19 says, "In the multitude of my anxieties within me, your comforts delight my soul" (NKJV).
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