Kathryn Sandford Online

My Life as an Adult Orphan

We lost our parents within 2 days of each other and that event shattered our lives into a million pieces. My brothers, my sister and I for 8 years have carried our pain and grief in different ways however I know our hearts were broken the day Mum and Dad died.  I remember sitting around the dining table and my eldest brother looked at us and said "oh my god we are now orphans". The four of us looked at each other with shock and the pain of loss - the loss of unconditional love, the loss of knowing that no matter what happens you had someone to turn to who loved you , the loss of having a connection with someone who knew how you were feeling just listening to your voice, the loss of hearing the words..."its going to be alright", the loss of knowing my children were not going to grow up with grandparents who had so much to share and teach them about life, so many wonderful stories to tell were no longer going to be told.

Its a peculiar thing been an adult orphan because the term "orphan" is accepted as being when a child's parents die. The world accepts and understands that concept of "being a child orphan". It is so tough as an adult orphan because you feel that you have to get on with your life and so you shut away your  pain and grief . You keep going because that is what is expected of you.  Inside however you are still that orphan child feeling the intense pain, the grief, loss  disconnection and bewilderment.

Orphans Syndrome

 I read this article about "orphan syndrome" - which is a condition that a child can suffer from as a result of their parents dying. What is interesting though, is that orphan syndrome can manifest in adults and it is quite a common condition but not really talked about. The most likely time in an adults life where the condition can be triggered is between the ages of 40-50 years old. Orphan syndrome for an adult is  more like a prolonged period of mourning where the intensity of grief never really subsides. In fact the feelings of grief become more acute, particularly if you had a close relationship with your parents.

I have been mourning the loss of my parents for 8 years and realized when I read this article that I suffered from "orphans syndrome". This condition explained the feelings of loss, sadness and anger - such as getting pissed off when I  see my friends with their parents and it feels really unfair. I am a pretty optimistic, confident and positive person and the article also explained why all my fears,self doubt, angst and questioning of my purpose in life, my mortality and knowing that it will be me next in line to die etc have taken over my life  and  dominated my self talk and conversations in my head!

The article also talked about "disenfranchised grief" - which is where grief is not really appreciated when you lose your parents as an adult.  When your elderly mum or dad dies often the first question is "how old were they? Oh well they had a good innings" Because I lost Dad and Mum within 2 days of each other I would be told "Oh  thats sad, your Mum and Dad couldn't live without each other...or "Well at least they are together" One comment that really got me was "well its quite romantic how they both went together after such a long wonderful marriage" The intense grief you are feeling is instantly dismissed because your parents died at an age where you are an adult and they were old so it is to be expected!  Quite unbelievable!

Where to from here?

When Dad & Mum died my life was thrown into shock and turmoil - an emotional roller coaster which I believe is now near the end of its run. The article on "orphans syndrome" has literally lifted the weight of grief and sadness that I have been carrying for over 8 years. I know that my parents would not want me to mourn them and be sad. They would want me to live my life to the fullest and to be happy!

I believe that "orphan syndrome" is a rite of passage that as an adult orphan I have travelled through. I am now entering into a phase of my life which feels more like it will be all about celebration! Celebrating my parents, their life and their legacy that lives through me and my children. Those happy family memories now need to be shared and enjoyed - not hidden!

9 comments on “My Life as an Adult Orphan

  1. Thanks for sharing your experience and perspective on this very real human condition. This afternoon I am going to the funeral of the father of a friend from high school. I did not know his father well I only met him a few times. For the last 10 years, I have made it my mission to attend these memorials. First to share in the grieving with my friends and second learn more about the individual who has left us. I am 61 and this is the age in life when lots of our parents are passing on. My Father passed in ’04, my sweet Mom 2 years ago in April. Just yesterday I had a spontaneous grief session where tears just came out of the blue. It always happens in such random places you know standing in line @ Costco or waiting for your number to be called @ the DMV…sitting at a traffic light.

    The part you shared about: “mortality and being the next in line to die taking over and dominating my self talk and conversations in my head!” Wow, really hit me where I live and defines my thinking over the last 6 months. Just knowing that someone else has been effected this way will, I hope help to mitigate this thinking which has at times paralyzed me.

    I have also suffered with infrequent anxiety attacks that also paralyze me..thankfully a very low dose of xanax seems to alleviate the symptoms in a very short time. These attacks always come on in my sleep where I wake up unable to breathe with a tingling sensation from the top of my head to my feet and an overall feeling of dread. I have to quickly dress, go outside and walk around and pray until the tingling subsides and my spirit becomes calm again. This started in September of 2012 about 5 months after my Mom passed away.

    We are all effected differently and I just thought I would share some of my experiences.


    1. Thank you Randy for your kind words and sharing your thoughts. I was so happy to find that my experiences and thoughts were able to provide you with some comfort and support. Knowing that there are other people out there going through very similar experiences helps us to feel not so alone. The anxiety you are going through I know can be paralysing and I know at time I didn’t like hearing it but the journey of grief does take time and I am happy to say that I have come to a point in my journey of grief and sorrow where I am starting to smile and want to celebrate my life and the wonderful life I shared with my parents. All the best and stay in touch:) Kathryn

  2. 5-12-14
    This comes from a native New Yorker and babyboomer who lost her widowed,retired mother Clowdia who died at 88,born in Panama and a LPN at Kings County Hospital; after 35 years on 1-24-13.She died in her room at home.I would like youropinion of the Hardiness Institute`s Hardsurvey on personal Stress with Dr.Sal-
    vatore Maddi.And the book the Emotion Code by Dr.Bradley Nelson.You could
    also look up the Healers Library online associated with that.Along with the book
    by Marc and Angel Chernoff1,000 Litlle Things Happy Successful people do.See
    The Daily Om as well.Available as well shttp://www.stopunwantedthoughts.com,
    letwoundsguide,http://www.drkendoka.com/publications.htm,http://www.al;linahealth.orgAnd last the Healing Line newsletter with Dr.Francis Macnutt with The ChristianHealinf Ministry in Jacksonville,Florida.Iam currently in a support group calledThe Compassionate Friends.And last Fall ended a ten week particpation with The Alzheimers Bereavement Group with two group leaders.And last week I emailed
    Complicated Greif.Keep in mind that I am just a laymen with a Associate in Arts in
    Liberal Arts(no major) from The Borough of Manhattan Community College/CUNY
    class of August 1987 paid for with a grant on academic transfer.I lost my younger
    brothrt John in The World Trade Center September 11.He just attended the meeting.
    He left behind two sons Jeffrey and Adam in New Jersey.His wife Kathy since remarried.And my mother was creamated as was my father John Sr who died at
    Long Island College Hospital in November 1996 at 72.He was a Trinidad born
    automechanic for Chrysler.So you can see why I check things out.The internet helps me look these things up.I must go I have to do my work.
    Keith P.Cooper

    1. Thank you Keith for your email. I am glad my blog about my experiences as an adult orphan helped you in some way address the things that have challenged you in your life.

  3. Here I thought I was the only one. I am 49 years old, lost my Dad in 2002 and Mom passed earlier this year. Dad’s death came sudden and floored me! Mom slowly went down hill over the 12 year period. I checked in on her and helped her to the best of my ability, then finally her health got to the point where we could no longer give her the care that she physically needed. We put her in a nursing home one year before her death. Very sad! I visited her almost daily. When she passed I was sad but not like I thought I should be. I think about it daily, but I find it hard to process. My wife and I live in the same area that I grew up in. If anything I find it hard to live in this area now. She did suffer a great deal with her sickness before passing, but I find it hard to think that her death would be better than the suffering. Still trying to get my head around it. Thanks for the articles!

    1. Thank you Glen for sharing your experiences and your story. It is such a struggle to try and process how we feel after how parents have gone. I don’t think you can prepare for it especially when you have a close relationship with them. You lost your Dad so suddenly and when you said that it floored you I know how you would have felt. Being with your Mum for those 12 years and when she passed it although wasn’t sudden, it is still very hard to deal with.

      I think it is the sense of loss and connection to our childhood, the memories, the good times and safe times when we were free and loved by our parents. Now as adults When our parents die – that connection to our childhood experiences and memories is broken and lost forever. I spent too many years processing/analysing my feelings and I look back now in hindsight and with more knowledge – and the only piece of advice I could give you is “don’t spend too much time and angst trying to process everything in your head. Try to be present with your feelings and find out what it is you are feeling – sadness, loss, disconnection, fear…. Deal with that feeling.

      We buried my mother 2 days after my Dad and it was our wedding anniversary. For 8 years I have not celebrated my wedding anniversary because I felt upset as the day bought back for me the feeling of pain and sadness. Just before my wedding anniversary this year my sister said to me “what are you doing for your wedding anniversary?” I replied “nothing”. Her response was
      “Kathryn I think Mum and Dad want you to celebrate whats good in your life now – not the memory and pain you have of them dying.I think they will be getting a little pissed off with your sadness. Mum and Dad loved and celebrated life so honour that about them – not your suffering”
      It just hit me and she was right. Her timing was perfect as I was ready to listen and I went and booked a weekend for us in Melbourne!! Had the best wedding anniversary ever! My husband had been so patient and never said anything for 8 years. In Melbourne we sat down at dinner and worked out how many years we had been married and we only could do that because our son was turning 21 the following month and we figured we were married 2 years before he was born. 23 years!

      My journey and how I dealt with Mum and Dad’s deaths is my story and what I felt and experienced is real but in hindsight as I said early. I look back and I think I did prolong the processing,the angst,the sadness and loss just a little! Thankfully my sister kicked me in to touch. Hope this helps you Glenn – take care Love Kathryn

  4. Thanks for this posting. I’ve been searching the internet and looking for books, but nothing quite catches the challenges as a young adult orphan . I lost both my parents unexpectedly when I was 27 within 6 months. I did a lot of avoidance, therapy, drinking… Anything to take the pain away. I tried groups, but often it was middle aged people talking about the death of their elderly parents and it took everything within me not to scream and run out. Having a parent when youre up into your 60’s is much different than losing BOTH parents in your 20’s. Both hard, but I wish I could say my parents lived that long.

    I am now about to marry a man that is a complicated orphan– his dad passed away and his mom is so severely mentally Ill that we need to care for her every needs And with this wedding planning, I have developed such an inner rage and loneliness and resentfulness at all my friends, relatives… All the others that can’t understand the pain of doing something like this alone. No one to throw an engagement party, no one to walk down the aisle, no one to talk about how to book a caterer. I will get through it, and it will be amazing to be married to the man that gets me and I get him… But goddamn… This is hard. Your info about the orphan syndrome was very helpful. At a time when I should be celebrating, I am pushing everyone away. I wish for people to ask to help, to step forward… I wish I had the overbearing parents to bounce things off of. Now we are struggling to make ends meet to save for a wedding while I wish I could just be adopted… By any adult that would care. I know grief is a process, but no one prepared me for this cosmic wave of grief that has consumed me with wedding planning. Any advice or support is appreciated . And just wanted to thank you for ‘getting it’… So few of us do.

    1. Thank you for your post Carley. It is exceptionally hard to lose your parents at such a young age. I can understand your frustration when you went to those groups and they didn’t really relate to your pain. Life is an amazing thing and it certainly throws us lots of curve balls. Sometimes I wonder if it ever will stop. You certainly have faced many challenges in your life and also survived them.
      For me when I am in pain and feeling frustrated in my life – I find that all I focus on is my pain and frustration which overtime turns into anger and resentment. These feelings never served me well and slowly cut me off from my friends and family who loved me. How I managed to work my way out of this deep hole was by making a decision that I didn’t want to feel like this for the rest of my life – something had to change. So I began searching to find out how I could be happier in my life. One small step at a time and 8 years later I live a full and happy life. I still have to face the challenges of life but I am far more resilient and a lot stronger.

      My advice to you would be to set yourself a 30 day challenge which is what I did. Get a journal and every day for 30 days write in your journey 2 things that you are grateful, 2 good things that you have achieved that day and 2 things you have done for yourself that makes you happy. Don’t not overcomplicate it – keep it simple. Smiling at a stranger, having a bath, going for a walk, eating an ice cream. At the end of the 30 days write out all the things you are grateful for in your life, all the good things that you have achieved over the last month and all things things that you do for yourself that make you happy!

      Its an amazing feeling when you read what you have achieved over the past 30 days – you actually start to feel happy when you read the journal.

      If you decide to do the 30 day challenge let me know how you go at the end of it!

      I also write articles for LifeHack – here is the link to all my articles. Have a look there may be some information in these articles that could support you.

      Kathryn Sandford LifeHack Articles”>http://www.lifehack.org/articles/author/kathryn-sandford

      Stay in touch as I will be promoting my Online Resilience Coaching Programme – which you may be interested in.


Leave a Reply to Randy Barnett Cancel reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *