What It’s Like Becoming an Orphan

Becoming an Orphan, By Carolyn Ridder Aspenson

There is a secret club no one really talks about. It’s the orphan club.

I don’t mean orphan in the traditional sense, where a child is born and the parents are not a part of the child’s life. This club of orphans is the club one joins after both of his or her parents have passed. Not everyone becomes a member of this club but many do and those that enter before others don’t discuss it with anyone who isn’t a member, at least not in any detail.

My mother passed in June of 2009. She’d been a chain smoker since her early twenties and dodged the cancer bullet until her late seventies when it came hard and strong and took her quickly. I knew it was coming but that certainly didn’t make it any easier.

My father also smoked from an early age and the last few years of his life were rough – rough on him and everyone who loved him.  Anyone who smokes should be forced to spend just one day with someone who suffers from advanced COPD and emphysema. I suspect they would strongly consider quitting. Watching it destroy a strong, intelligent man was beyond heartbreaking. After my mother passed I asked my dad to give me a year. I just needed a year to process the death of my mother, so I thought, and then I would be ready to process his if need be. He made it eleven months, minus one day. I recall telling my husband I’d given him an A for effort.

After the death of my mother I realized that as much as I was prepared for my mother to die – which I felt I was since I’d had four months to accept it and be with her – I wasn’t at all prepared for her to be dead. There is a tremendous difference between the two.  When my father passed, while not expected at that particular moment, I considered myself prepared for him to leave but had learned the lesson that I would not be prepared for him to be gone.

What I didn’t realize was that becoming an orphan was life changing.

The two people who knew the real me, where I came from, how I became who I am, and who’d watched me grow up and loved me unconditionally from the moment I was conceived, were gone.  Sure, I have a wonderful husband and three incredible children, and even two siblings, but none of them shared with me what I shared with my parents. None of them had my back since day one. None of them had that special something, that indefinable thing a parent gives a child. When I lost my father, I lost that too.

I had no idea how that would feel. The pain it brought was so intense I’m not quite sure what words could describe it. The hole in my heart was so big, I wasn’t sure it would ever mend.

Unconsciously for me, I ate my way through dealing with the loss of my mother and gained a little too much weight. Dad’s death helped me reach a number on the scale I’d never seen, even while pregnant. I knew I was gaining weight and I knew why but I wasn’t prepared to stop because I wasn’t ready to deal with the process of accepting the loss.

One day I sat in Starbucks, watching people go about their lives and it made me angry. Sure, I had no idea what their lives held, what loss they felt, but I didn’t care. I was mad and I was finally feeling something other than sadness. In that moment I made decisions. I decided that for one, eating my way through my grief wasn’t doing anything for me and my parents were very likely looking down at me and saying, “Geez, Carolyn, back away from the buffet,” because frankly, they never held back on how they felt. I realized that to honor them and to feel better, I’d need to find some new, improved version of the old me, someone that would make them proud, someone that could understand that death happens no matter how I felt about it and they would not want me to wallow in my sadness but to find something good to move toward.  The first thing I did was start back to my previous exercise regimen, prior to my mother’s diagnosis, and I also gave up sugar and processed foods. I watched the weight come off and the exercise endorphins kick in, and I actually began to feel somewhat human again.

The second thing I did was write. I’d always wanted to be a writer and had taken steps to become one. I finagled a freelance gig for five newspapers and even two magazines. I knew my father was watching over me with pride. He was creative and I’ve always felt I got that gene from him. My mother, she was special in a way only mothers could be and I wanted to find a way to honor that, to show the world who this woman was and give them a piece of her wonder. I decided to write a book, a fictionally based book, based on my mother, so the rest of the world could share her delight.  I actually spent two years doing that and during that time, stopped for about a year. I only started again because I had a dream that my mother told me to finish the book. That next morning I woke up and did just that. She was probably amazed at my doing what she said for a change, too.

What I’ve learned over the past few years.

Most importantly, I’ve learned that death happens and regardless of how we feel about it, we can’t stop it. I realized that after my parents died, and after anyone close to us dies, we will never be the same. Things in our lives will change and we will change but that doesn’t mean it can’t be okay. It doesn’t mean we can’t be happy. It just means there is a new normal and we must move forward. I realized that losing my parents was, to date, the most painful thing I’ve ever had to deal with and while it was a horrible experience, in their deaths, they taught me a valuable lesson-they taught me how to be strong. Their deaths have prepared me more for the next worst thing that will ever happen to me. Their last life lesson for me was a character builder and one I didn’t recognize until recently.

Death is a horrible, selfish thing, but it’s unavoidable. I don’t think my parents would have wanted me to stay sad forever, and when I finally realized that, I knew then that I’d just have to make the decision, every single day, to be happy. So far it’s worked and I have them to thank because after all, I’m who I am because of them.

This essay is in honor of Rita D. Ridder 1931-2009 and Richard L. Ridder 1928-2010 RIP, wonderful parents.  Please share your comments about loss of your parents below:




Carolyn Ridder Aspenson is the author of Unfinished Business, a paranormal chick-lit novel about Angela Panther, a woman who thinks she is having a grief-stricken hallucination of her mother, Fran, who just died of cancer, but it turns out that instead she is seeing her ghost. Fran has returned for “unfinished business” and Angela is equally fearful of why she has come as she is grateful to have more time with her mother. Carolyn describes the book as a declaration of love for the woman who raised her.

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