The Young Adult Orphan Club

By Kari Johnson - 12/28/2022


The hope is that we, as children, outlive our parents. That our parents live a long and rewarding life before they die. But what happens when this isn’t the case? What happens when our parents die young? What happens when we lose both of our parents and we aren’t quite ready to be the adultest adult in the room yet? This blog addresses things I wish I would have known being in the Young Adult Orphan Club along with some things that I have found to be helpful.

Both of my parents passed away in their early-mid 60s. Wham, I was suddenly very alone by the age of 40. I entered a special club that I had no idea existed nor did I want the honor of joining. My parents still had places they wanted to visit, grandchildren they wanted to watch grow up, traditions they wanted to pass on, relationships they wanted to enjoy, work that needed to be done, and quilts that needed to be created. There was a sense of being robbed, the “no fair” siren was screaming, and I was lost.

Grief. What a term, right? That thing that we all go through, multiple times in life, yet each time is unique and different in its own right. The waves carry us into a numbed daze, knock us over, and even provide a salve to our aching heart. Sometimes it was hard to breathe and in other moments, time lapsed without any sort of awareness. Each “task” that needed to be completed was painful and carried a sense of finality. It was raw and I couldn’t help wishing that I had been more prepared. Because when we know what to expect, it hurts less… right?

Here are some things that I wish I would have known…

  • Holidays, birthdays, and anniversary’s = yep they suck. There is a sense of not wanting to participate or forget the day is supposed to be “special.” However, there is also a pull to ensure that family traditions and my folks legacy remains. The memories come flooding back, the pain that they aren’t here is heavy, and it’s also a time to honor what they have given me. One word comes to mind, torn. What helped me = I took a break from holidays and traditions. I started to add in somethings that felt “safe” and was able to go at my own pace. I allowed myself time to cry and take breaks from the day as needed. .
  • Despising certain words and phrases. We never know what to say in times of grief, so sometimes what we think might help actually backfires. I experienced so much anger towards people who were trying to provide comfort but I felt they just didn’t get it. Hearing “with time, things will get better”, “I can’t even imagine,” “they are in your heart, keep their memory alive,” and even the Bob Marley quote that I adored “You never know how strong you are until being strong is all you have left” became massive triggers for me. I didn’t know how to respond so I isolated. What helped me = I started telling myself the things that I was needing to hear. I found phrases that worked for me. I told my support system my phrases.
  • Others are grieving too, in their own way. I wasn’t prepared for being a reminder to my mom’s siblings and friends that she’s gone. People that I was hoping to find comfort with, weren’t able to give me that support. Partly because they were grieving, partly because I was grieving, and partly because it just hurts all the way around. It was easy to isolate and turn off the world. What helped me = I turned to others within this club to provide support and understanding. I tried to not take things personal. I got really good at deep breathing exercises
  • Life milestones and highlights aren’t the same. The dreams of having a parent walk you down the aisle, see you walk across that graduation stage, watch your children grow up, and taking those family trips to faraway lands will not happen as we had hoped. Going to weddings, funerals, birthday parties, retirement parties, etc. can cause a windfall of emotions. Taking a trip to the restroom when the father daughter dance happens and even minimizing your accomplishments can occur. Some may see this as running away from the pain, I see it as a protective factor to help us be present when we can. It’s okay to not be okay. What helped me = I talked to my parents and envisioned them watching my accomplishments. I purchased gifts for myself in their memory. I sent cards for events when I wasn’t ready to attend yet. I told my support system and they walked beside me.
  • “I wish I would have taken the time” moments will happen on a regular basis. Wishing to have conversations that we can’t have now, gain a better understanding of family history, learn how to quilt/wood work, master the family recipes, learn the adulting tricks, and take those trips we always said we would. The missed opportunities can be haunting and yet there are times I’m able to channel my folks and fix the garbage disposal or remind myself “the trick to cooking is to just let it sit.” What helped me = Every time I found myself in the ‘I wish’ loop, I would remind myself of something I had learned/experienced. Sometimes I even completed the task for added measure. I started paying more attention when family members would reminisce. I asked people to tell me about my folks as a kid. I made family dishes and started to experiment with making them my own.

There are so many more bullet points I could add to this topic and in all honestly, even in this club, we all grieve differently. I’m a firm believer that our grief doesn’t shrink over time, it’s more about how we grow around our grief. Yes, some days are much easier than others. Yes, I am thankful for the time and memories I have with my parents. Yes, my love for them has not changed. AND yes, it still hurts. Anne Lamott wrote it best, “It’s like having a broken leg that never heals perfectly that still hurts when it’s cold, but you learn to dance with a limp.”

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