Suddenly, I was an orphan ...

The death of one parent is tough. But when the second parent dies, the world turns upside down. You are no longer the younger generation, and must confront your own mortality. By Virginia Ironside
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Indy Lifestyle Online
Four years ago this month, my father died. It has brought back all kinds of memories, of course, and it's not unusual for a parent of 75 to die. But what I still find hard to come to terms with is that I am now an orphan. And how the experience of the death of the second parent is different from the death of the first, whatever one feels about either.

With the second parent's death, we lose not only that person and connection with our past, but having a parent at all. We become middle-aged orphans.

Research has shown that people are generally far more badly hit when the surviving parent dies, because once you become an orphan you have to suffer not only the grief of losing a parent, but must also completely reassess your life and your role in it.

To make matters worse, the second parent's death so often comes at a time when our own lives are beset with difficulties. It may coincide with the onset of middle-age or the menopause, and perhaps children leaving home. With the death, too, may come the sudden and unwelcome realisation that we can no longer put things off "until we are grown up". Now we are the grown-ups; in our family, indeed, we may even have become (horror of horrors) the older generation. And we have to confront one very unpleasant fact: our own mortality.

When my father died and I was suddenly parentless, I felt pushed into the front line. It was as if I'd been sitting in an office in Whitehall for years, reading about a far-away war in the headlines of newspapers, when the phone had rung and I'd received orders to cram on my tin hat and get over to the firing line. My father, the buffer zone between myself and death, was gone. Now I was in no-parents land with snipers all around me. I was next.

This feeling of mortality is a double-edged sword. To know that we, too, will die is terrifying; but there is an excitement about knowing that we can put things off no longer. If we always wanted to learn Spanish or to run away and become a bongo-player, we'd better get our skates on, because it's suddenly clear that our lives are startlingly finite.

Not only do we have to confront our own mortality, but when both parents die, we face all kinds of other adjustments and emotions as well. We don't just lose the people themselves; we lose the role they played in our lives.

Men usually die first, so the second parent to die is, most commonly, our mother, probably the person we were closest to. She was also perhaps the only one, apart from our partners, with whom we could share the delight of our children's achievements. There were jokes that we could share only with her, funny voices, nicknames. The second parent to die is the last person who knew us in and out, as children, through our teens, our various relationships. And even though it might have been a long time since we last sought their advice, we will have known that our parents were always there in time of crisis. When the second parent dies, there is no one left who would lay down a life for us.

The second parent to die, particularly a mum, was probably the custodian of generations of knowledge and attitudes, keeper of family memories. She was the one who could identify all those fuzzy people in the photo albums she had so carefully assembled. But while the second parent's death locks many doors, it opens up a past. When someone is alive, their existence seems to withhold the key to the strongbox of remembrance. When they are alive, we see them as they are now; our memories are of our last meeting, not the distant past. When they die, however, a scrapbook of the past suddenly flies open. Memories come flooding back. When we think of our parent, now, after their death, we think of any time in their life, not just the moment we last saw them - we suddenly remember when they were much younger, the bad times as well as the good.

The death of the second parent may give access to the past in a way that isn't always pleasant. Things we would have preferred to have forgotten leap up to confront us. Childhood memories we have tried to keep hidden refuse to be repressed. Some people find themselves mourning a second parent's death deeply - but what they may mourn is not so much the death of their mother or father, but the fact that they never really felt they had a mother or father. We may mourn "what might have been". We may also feel frustrated and unhappy because of the questions we left unasked; so many feelings left unaired.

We may also face tremendous guilt. If a parent's illness or confusion meant we felt relief when they died, it can make us feel terrible. Pleased that a parent has died? Why, we must be monsters! Because their death takes a huge burden from us, and makes us feel in some ways happier than when they were alive, we punish ourselves by feeling responsible for their death.

But perhaps the biggest job of work to do when the second parent dies is to discover who we are, now. Colin Murray Parkes, a psychiatrist specialising in bereavement, described a bereaved person as one who must change his internal model of the world to incorporate the new external reality. And this is what a middle-aged orphan has to do when he or she is usually feeling exceptionally miserable and physically low.

On my father's death, I felt completely confused. At one moment it seemed as if the backdrop to my life had changed. And - just as, when you change a backdrop from a plain white, say, to a dark, patterned one, the objects in front change their tones and colours in relation to it - so did I, and all the characters in my life altered as well. I saw them differently. Some seemed smaller, some bigger, some farther away, some closer, some uglier, some prettier.

Another moment I would imagine my father as a giant and beautiful rhododendron bush that had been growing bigger and bigger in a flower bed. He was good- looking, extraordinarily clever, well read, he was a practising artist, he played the piano, he was exceptionally amusing, he had the OBE ... and he rather overpowered me. When he died, as his child, I couldn't fail to miss him, but, also, I could not fail to flourish. After his death, the rain may beat down on me more heavily, but I get more sun as well.

When a friend lost a second parent, she wrote me a letter describing her intensely affectionate feelings about her father, the funeral, the weather on the day of the funeral, every minuscule detail.... And she ended up, the first time she had ever signed off in this way, "love from me". She adored her father. But within months she had given up her job, gone abroad, got married for the first time. It was as if she could only become herself once her father had died.

Like the terrible twos, and the turbulent teenage years, like marriage, children and, perhaps, divorce, becoming an orphan is just another stage in our lives. A painful one, but one that can, particularly for those who have found it hard to break away from their parents or have ambivalent feelings about them, be an exciting one, too. Life may now seem shorter, but perhaps it has more of an edge to it. We may be able to live more in the moment than we could before. Suddenly the buck stops here, and there is no one to turn to any more.

When I described to my son my own feelings about my father's death, I said I felt trapped between two worlds, like the couple on the Willow Pattern bridge, unable to go back to the old world, unable to move on to another one. One minute my world seemed to have ended, the next I felt my world had begun. I saw these as conflicting feelings, but he sensibly pointed out that both were true. "An old world has ended, Mum," he said. "And a new world is beginning. And you had better," he added wisely, warningly, "make the most of it."

'You'll Get Over It- The Rage of Bereavement' by Virginia Ironside, is published by Hamish Hamilton, pounds 16.

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