Last year I turned 41. I am now officially middle aged. Apparently this is the point in time when my generation’s parents start dropping like flies. In the past two years, I have lost count of how many of my friends, neighbors and acquaintances have lost a parent. Each time, I have watched the ritual unfold. Condolences are offered, funerals are planned. The sordid mess of sorting through a lifetime of possessions and settling wills is dealt with. And everywhere the bereaved adult child goes, they hear the words “I am sorry for your loss.”
Whether their relationship was loving, strained, or a mixture of both. Whether the parent was nurturing or neglectful. Still the words “I am sorry for your loss” are offered up. A benediction for mourning. A recognition that the passing of a parent marks a particular shift in one’s life journey.
I have watched as space is made for the adult child to grieve. How it is understood that it will take a while to return to “regular life” after such a loss. I have watched as the bereaved talk openly about their grief, which comes in waves, over the course of years. And I have been jealous. Because this kind of understanding will never be given to me. And it’s my fault, isn’t it? Because it was my choice.
The decision to permanently cut off contact with my parents was almost anti-climactic. After years of trying off and on to figure out how to have a relationship with them without sacrificing myself, I realized that I was trying for the impossible. I was embroiled in yet another abusive drama, in which I was somehow to blame for a parent’s alcoholic misbehavior. This familiar ebb and flow of dysfunction had played out so many times in so many ways that I realized I wasn’t angry any more, I was just sad. I looked into my future and saw it play out for the rest of my life and I knew I just couldn’t do it anymore. My husband and I were planning to have a child. Was this what I wanted my child to grow up watching? Were these people going to have a positive impact on my child? No.
In the 10 years since I made that decision, I have never once regretted it. I am a happier person without them in my life. It’s sad, but true. However, there is no rite of passage for the child who has had to make a choice between her mental health and a relationship with her parents. There is no supportive community gathering around offering up condolences and casseroles. There is just a long, lonely adjustment to the reality that you are, in a way, an orphan now.
When my parents pass away, I will get a call, or an email, from some relative. I will be asked if I will attend the funeral, but I will not, because I have already done my grieving. I have grieved the parts of that relationship that were good. I have grieved for what could have been. I have grieved for all the ways I needed them to show up for me that they were not capable of. And I am done. And I am angry that I did it alone, with no one to turn to me and say “I am sorry for your loss.”
I am angry that in addition to losing my family, I lost out on the rite of passage, on the support of community, on the acknowledgement of this very significant transition in my life. There is no ritual to support a child who has lost her family in this way, and there should be. It takes incredible bravery to do this in the face of cultural backlash, to give up the comfort of the known pain for the unknown. To believe in spite of all previous evidence that I deserve better, and to walk away from people who will never love me the way I want them to.
I will never regret the decision I made, but I wish that it wasn’t such a lonely choice.
The writer of this article has chosen to remain anonymous.