Random Thoughts from a Restless Mind

Dr. Darrell White's Personal Blog

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As You Approach Orphanhood

Sadly, I have had numerous opportunities over the last year or so to note that there is not a single language on earth that has a word or name for a parent who has lost a child. Words exist to describe a surviving spouse, and of course we have a word in most languages for a child without parents: orphan. The word conjures up Dickensonian images of waifs and wastrels in varying degrees of distress and underdress, under-fed and unloved. In reality, despite the ubiquity of this stereotype, there are many, many ways that one becomes an orphan. Indeed, in a proper order of events, each of us will be orphaned by the loss of a second parent.

It is somewhat amazing to me how many people have lost a parent early in life through abandonment. A mother or a father simply ups and leaves. No forwarding address or email, just gone forever. It hurts just to type those words. What must it feel like to leave them, your children? I can’t imagine. Still others lose a parent for years on end before that parent actually dies. Mental illnesses of all sorts, most commonly the various types of dementia, essentially wipe a loved one’s personhood off the planet long before the empty shell passes on. It’s a rather cruel joke, that, to see what looks like your Mom or Dad sitting across from you like some kind of reasonable facsimile, an avatar perhaps, but not really Mom or Dad. Mourning begins years or decades before anyone sits Shiva.

In the end, though, orphanhood comes for us all, in one way or another. My friend Bill, the surgeon, expresses surprise and a sense of something that is a bit more than frustration, though slightly less than anger, at what he calls the “final reckoning” deathbed visit. Why, he so often wonders, do so many people, so many sons and daughters, feel the need to achieve some sort of closure, some sort of final peace in the last waning hours of a life? Mind you, this is a man who practices “live and death” medicine; his point, forged so close to the fire, ought not be missed.

Mothers and fathers are no more or less flawed than any other humans. For most of us their flaws lie cloaked behind the curtains of devotion in our childhood. As we ourselves age, certainly if we become parents, those curtains part and we begin to see more of the whole person who makes up Mom or Dad. Blessed are we who find more to like and love behind those curtains. One hopes at worst that what we find does not dim the glow of childhood memory. Bill’s point, or at least what I think he is saying, is that we should know that orphanhood is inevitable. There is nothing that you can say or do on death’s doorstep that cannot be said or done long before you approach the threshold of your own orphan status. Bill would say that closure is important, that he understands and supports the compulsion to make sure that your parents know that you love them. It’s just the timing he’s wondering about.

Why wait until the cusp of orphanhood? Why not discharge regrets and express your love and gratitude when you and Mom and Dad might still have time to enjoy what comes next? Together.

2 Responses to “As You Approach Orphanhood”

  1. November 28th, 2018 at 7:56 pm

    bill the surgeon says:

    Yes I do occasionally read your posts, and yes you do represent my opinion accurately.

    As the only way to avoid orphan status is to predecease our parents and thus create, willingly or not, that state for which there is no single word(surviving parent of deceased child), the need to deal with loss is inevitable.

    As a Catholic I can only assume many of us have been numbed by the oft repeated mantra that as we never know the day that Our Lord will return and therefore must always be prepared for that day, so we fail to apply that principle of uncertain timing to something that requires no faith to know; We WILL lose a loved one.

    While this will be most likely a parent, more distant relative or friend it could also be a child; waiting until the inevitable is about to happen to either have that “great moment” or the scenario I see more often “assuage our guilt,” seems an exercise in timing less likely than figuring out successfully when to enter or exit the stock market.

    The older or more medically complicated a person becomes only increases the likelihood that delaying these encounters will lead to lost opportunity to have them. While we may honestly fail to see the obvious when it presents itself, more often we just don’t want to admit what it seems everyone should recognize.

    For our part, we as physicians often do this part of our job poorly. While we have no gift of omniscient foresight, failing to share what we know and effectively communicate our experience with those who need to prepare themselves emotionally to deal with what is coming does our patient’s and their families no favors.

    Regardless of how it comes to it, the mad dash to the airport or frantic drive down the turnpike to a hospital room or hospice bed is unlikely to lead to a gratifying moment.

    Say it all now for we do not know the day….

  2. November 30th, 2018 at 8:19 pm

    drwhite says:

    “Say it all now for we do not know the day…”

    That, my good friend, is poetry. Thanks for dropping by, however occasionally. Thanks, also, for the not infrequent inspiration you provide for those posts.

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