On Becoming an Orphan
Even when it happens later in life, it's not easy. Why?
My father’s death at age 89 a few weeks ago was hardly unexpected. A Parkinson’s patient for 33 years, a nursing-home resident for 13, his otherwise perfect health made Milton Drevitch a nearly perfect blank slate on which to witness that disease’s inexorable progress on our movement and speech centers; by the end he was left virtually mute. And so his death, of pneumonia complications, seemed right and natural, although the end ironically came upon my siblings and me quite suddenly.
And yet, following my mother’s death six years ago after a series of illnesses, we were now orphans. As my wife, children and I engaged in the Jewish tradition of shiva, welcoming visitors in our home for prayers for several days following my father’s funeral, many friends broached this topic. A few people brought it up with a smile, because certainly if one had to become an orphan, having it happen in middle age after parents had lived long, even if not always happy lives, was the way to do it. But others, especially those who’d already reached the same milestone, knew it meant something more, even if it’s hard for any of us properly to define it, beyond the awareness that our own mortality is now surely one step closer.
For me, becoming an orphan so far has been akin to the feeling of walking across a bridge or along the edge of a canyon. There’s a chasm below me. I'm not quite sure how deep it is, but I fear that it could swallow me if I’m not careful to keep looking straight ahead instead of down. To try to get a handle on what’s in that void, I spoke to journalist Allison Gilbert, author of the groundbreaking book Parentless Parents and founder of a network that provides insight and support to those (now including me) who are raising our children without the presence of our own mothers and fathers.
It is indisputably a tragedy to lose one’s parents when you’re still young. The loss of parents when you’re older can be subtler but also deeper, because you’ve had them in your life so much longer. Losing parents when you’re older is a common experience, of course, but, as Gilbert says, “it’s not common to you.
“You’ve shared more celebrations with them, you’ve had more milestones to include them in, and they’ve been there to hold your hand, literally or figuratively, through more of life’s challenges,” Gilbert says. “When that support is gone, it can feel like a tether that’s been broken and that can be very unsettling. It makes you feel unmoored.”
“Unmoored” is an apt description for how I’ve felt in the past few weeks. An important way for new orphans like myself to get grounded again, Gilbert and other experts say, is to step up and take charge of our parents’ legacies by passing on the stories of their lives to our children. I’ve tried to take advantage of this window of high interest that my three kids have in my father's life right now, and so tales of his habits and quirks have been a mainstay of our recent dinner conversations — like the dime-store books he brought home for me from work, his devotion to my grandmother, and his insistence on never drinking milk during Passover.
My siblings and I were pleased that so many members of our extended family were able to attend my father's funeral. Of course, there are not so many of his own generation left with us, either family or friends. Decades removed from social or professional life and the networks that naturally spring up around them, his was not a death that had great impact on the world. But it had impact on me. Doing what I can in the time I have left with my children to keep his and my mother's stories alive is the least that I, or any orphan, can do.