Tuesday, October 26, 2010

Musings of a Midlife Orphan

The day my mother died of a heart attack, four months to the day after my father's fatal heart attack, my literary agent Susan Protter, seeking to comfort me, reassured me that, at 66, my parents had lived full and long lives.

I wanted to scream "Not long enough!"

My parents had died years -- decades -- before I had imagined they would.

I was an orphan at 35.

Ten years later, when Susan's father died at the age of 89, she called sobbing "He was only 89!"

I listened with empathy and the understanding that when you lose a parent at any age, it feels too soon. Even when a parent's death comes after a lingering illness, the sense of loss, both during the illness and after death is very real and life-changing.

The deaths of your last parent and the last member of your parental generation are major life transitions as your own sense of who you are, your place in the family and the universe change irrevocably.

1. You're now among the family elders.

In one sense, mortality takes on a whole new meaning as you walk up to the turnstile and know, with new immediacy, that time is finite.

That's not as depressing as it sounds: this new sense of time may provide the impetus for you to pursue some long-deferred dreams.

I had thought for years about going back to school, getting a degree in clinical psychology and becoming a psychotherapist.  But I didn't find the motivation to act on this dream until after my parents had died. Part of moving me to action was my own experience with grief and my appreciation for the therapist who helped me during that time.  I wanted to help others in the same way. Another part of my impetus to stop dreaming and do it was the understanding that this was not a dress rehearsal, that if I wanted to accomplish something more in my life, I needed to do it sooner rather than later.

After the death of my last parental generation relative -- my beloved Aunt Molly -- in 2004, I felt new motivation to slow down a bit and savor life, as she had.

And I felt suddenly older.

Aunt Molly used to say "As long as I'm around, you're still a kid!"

As nobody's kid, I've evolved in my generativity, feeling more joy in cheering younger family and friends on, stepping back and enjoying the accomplishments of others even more.

2. You're free of out-grown roles and expectations.

Many parents label their kids from childhood on and these old family roles can stick, whether they're true or not, until the parents are gone.

Of course, you've always had the choice to live this role or re-invent yourself.  But it becomes easier when you're on your own in this whole new way.

My mother's view of me was that I wasn't as pretty as my sister or as brilliant as my brother, but that I was a good, reliable person on whom she could always depend.

As I have evolved as an adult orphan, I've chosen to cultivate the positive part of my old role in being there when needed for family and friends.  But I've also come to appreciate anew my intelligence and imagination and the kindness I see in my own face.

When I'm not expected to be relentlessly dependable, I feel a new lightness and freedom in offering my support to others.

3. You may build new relationships with siblings, cousins and other extended family.

While it's true that some families fracture after the deaths of parents, you may find yourself becoming closer to siblings and other extended family.  When our parents are alive, too often we keep in touch with siblings and extended family through them. When your parents are gone, your other family relationships may assume new prominence in your life.

I've always loved my brother and sister, but our relationships, unfiltered and unfettered by parental issues, have grown in depth and warmth over the years. My relationships with my cousins, no longer filtered through my aunts, their mothers, have also become more immediate and personal.

4. You may feel new love and appreciation for your parents.

It goes beyond simply missing them, wishing you could pick up a phone or pop over for a visit just one more time or ask for more family history or the recipe for your favorite childhood treat.

Once you are no longer dealing with the complex people your parents were and the issues around their decline and death, you can remember them with love uninterrupted by the stresses of daily living.

My father was a difficult, demanding person who struggled with alcoholism and depression most of his life. He was also bright, witty, and, in his own way, a loving parent who strongly encouraged me to be the best I could be.

Now that he is gone, I can focus with greater clarity on his positive qualities.

All of this is not to say that we mid-life orphans don't miss our parents forever.

But these major losses can give us opportunities to grow, to reach out to others and to love in new and wonderful ways.


  1. Hi Dr. McCoy,
    I was referred to your new blog by a mutual friend, Pat Hill. At 63 I am finally admitting to "middle age". I'll be checking in to see what words of wisdom I can glean from you and other posters. Best of luck in your latest endeavor!

  2. Thanks, Rebecca! And if you or any other readers have questions or issues you'd like addressed here, you can contact me with a private comment or send an email to: drkathymccoy@gmail.com

  3. Hi Dr. McCoy,
    I am not sure if this is the format to begin a dialog about the many topics you have touched on, but I jotted off an intro about my family so you will know me better. Since I enjoy writing in rhymed poetic form, I wrote it that way.

    By Rebecca Strecker

    Was your family loving
    or was it dysfunctional?
    Did you often get walloped
    if you weren't punctual?
    Did your brother make sure
    to have your back?
    Or did he steal your money
    as a matter of fact?

    Did your Mother embarrass
    you to all your friends?
    Did she curse you and beat you
    without making amends?
    Did you father not notice
    or pretend not to care?
    How'd you grow up so well
    with so much love to spare?

    I choose not to think
    of my lousy upbringing.
    I'd much rather smile
    and hear life's joyous singing.
    Those days of the past
    are to me but a dream.
    I'll create my present
    of peaches and cream.

    The tears that I cried
    were from little girl's eyes.
    I see things more clearly
    since I said my goodbyes.
    My parents are dead
    and my brother estranged.
    I choose to be happy.
    I was not shortchanged.

    That's it in a nutshell. Born into a dysfunctional family with a mentally ill mother who did not get help. My only sibling did not like me and sided with my Mother. Dad was afraid to "rock the boat". I left home at 17 and while I kept in touch, I made my own life and chose to not let my past destroy my future.

    I've been married since '72 to the same man. No children but three amazing cats who are the topic of many of my [unpublished] adventure stories--- all written in rhymed verse.

    I hope to hear from you soon.

  4. Hi Kathy,
    My cousin Frances, a professional dancer sent me this film, and I wanted to share it with you and your blog readers.


    It certainly puts things into perspective and the final line says it all: "It it only when you become old that you realize the beauty of life". Alice will be 107 in Nov 2010. We who are middle aged now have that to look forward to!

    What could be worse than being a prisoner in a concentration camp? And what can be better than to affirm no hatred for anyone...ever. To this I add forgive those who hurt you..and go on with your life. Each day is a gift..don't waste it thinking of past hurts.
    Wishing everyone a happy day.