What I want you to know about becoming an orphan in your 20s

What I Want You to Know is a series of reader submissions. It is an attempt to allow people to tell their personal stories, in the hopes of bringing greater compassion to the unique issues each of us face. If you would like to submit a story to this series, click here.  Today’s guest post is by Leanne Penny.

I’m 32 and the mother of two (almost three). When I was 28 I became an orphan.

When you think of an orphan you likely think of a child overseas with a distended belly and big eyes. You’d be right, but that’s just one facet of orphan-dom, and obviously the one that needs our help the most. I don’t have needs like that, but being orphaned at any age is extremely painful.

Here’s how it all happened: When I was 23 my mother found my father dead in his office chair after suffering a massive, middle of the night heart attack. He was only 49.

Five years later, after a decades long struggle with depression she took her life on the train tracks down the road. I was very pregnant with our son and my brother was planning a wedding, it didn’t make any sense and then yet again, it did. Understanding suicide is really a whole other “what I want you to know…”

I have a hard story and it comes up often, at the hairdresser: “Do your parents live nearby?” Not anymore...
When asked for a secondary contact at preschool: “Did you want to use a grandparent?” I’d love to but I can’t.
With the paint lady at Lowes: “Why don’t your folks take him while you paint the living room?” Well.. you see…

Pretty much any time I have a conversation lasting more than 5 minutes the family question comes up. So, if I’m being authentic (which I’m aiming for) I tell the truth.

So, since I truly believe that most of you want to help and navigate things graciously, here are a few things I want you to know:
(Also, in the interest of closing loopholes my husband is an orphan as well, but he does have a long-distance stepmom… and yes, we know, we seriously lost the parent lottery, 0 for 4.)

1) No, it doesn’t hurt me to tell you about it- Generally I’m vague when people ask about my parents. I just say something like “they passed away,” but I know their curiosity is peaked. It’s not because they’re nosy but because getting to know someone listening to a story and I just inserted some fascinating foreshadowing. So people generally say “do you mind if I ask what happened?”

No, I don’t mind telling you, it’s not news to me. But it’s a hard story and it IS news to you. By telling you I instantly feel dramatic and broken, this is why it’s hard to tell you in the first 10 minutes. I either have show you my deep pain or be vague and closed off, and that’s not me. It doesn’t hurt me much to talk about it. It hurts that it’s true.

2) Happy events are usually very bittersweet- A few months back I was sitting at my husband’s grad school graduation, alone. I was in a sea of people clusters, everyone chatting as they waited for the service to start and there I was, just clutching my program... and crying.

It shouldn’t be this way, he should have people. He should have more than just me cheering him on. I ache for memories we never got the chance to make. I ache for grandparents at our kid’s birthday parties and I’m generally jealous of YOUR parents at YOUR kids birthday parties. Most days it’s fine, but some days it’s a throat lump I can’t swallow.

3) My parents left a gap you can’t fill- I’m blessed with friends, aunts and uncles that dearly love our family and I’m thankful. We are truly not alone. But honestly? They don’t come over on Christmas morning with stockings or start special memories with my kids like my Dad would have. They don’t cry when we announce a pregnancy like my Mom did or hold our babies as dearly, showering their faces with sloppy kisses.

We’ve been told: “We want to be there but we’re saving the name grandma for our actual grandkids.” So, yes we are loved, but we are no one’s children. That doesn’t mean I want people to stop showing up or playing surrogate, we’re just no one’s kids. It’s different.

4) Don’t talk to me about how “not great” your parents are to make me feel better- I know, I probably have rose-colored glasses about what having parents in your twenties and thirties is like. But, if you have a generally healthy relationship with your parents, don’t throw them under the bus for my sake. Be thankful for what you have, call them, tell them so, because you can.

This orphan thing is a rough road. Even though it’s the natural progression to lose your parents, it happened too early to our family. I’ve learned that the best thing I can do about it is to love well and alleviate loneliness in the lives of others. To open our broken family and be for others what we long for, a love that shows up regardless of blood or birth certificates.





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