Welcome to the Freak Show: Becoming an Orphan in My 20s

By | May 19, 2019

“And then you get turned into ashes!” the little girl howled, incredulous. Soon the other 6-year-olds were laughing hysterically, too. I looked around the circular table as we cut shapes from colorful paper and drew with glitter markers. These children had all lost loved ones: a grandparent, a sibling, mostly a parent. Twice a month we made art and talked around grief. My role was to facilitate their conversation, let them lead. So when they started joking about cremation, I laughed, too. It felt good, actually. And, I mean, cremation was kind of hilarious.

A few years earlier. I was taking a break from college to backpack alone in Greece and Turkey. Before leaving, I began to panic: The last time I’d left the country, to go to South Africa two years before, my father had died suddenly. I was scared something would happen again. Don’t be silly, I told myself. Don’t be silly, friends said, supportively. Don’t be silly, my therapist said, reassuringly. Don’t be silly, my mom said, lovingly. Everyone will be fine.

Five weeks into Turkey my mom died suddenly, too.

While losing a parent at any age, especially as a young child, is enormous and profound, your 20s are a particularly odd time to become an orphan. You’re too old to receive the structural support a child receives — no one finds you alternate parents or makes sure you have a roof over your head, food to eat. You don’t garner the same sympathy. But in some ways, you’re more like a child than an adult. Our teen brains don’t fully become adult ones until we’re 25.

My friend Tess and I started a two-person club, in jest — OHO — Orphans and Half Orphans. Tess was the half orphan, me the full member. I didn’t know anyone my age who’d lost both parents. I felt like the star of a freak show who spoke a barbaric language. In high school I studied Ancient Greek and learned that the word barbaric comes from “barbaros,” to disparagingly describe foreigners whose language sounded to Greeks like “bar bar bar.” In becoming an orphan in my 20s I was a barbarian — an alien with an alien tongue, able to shut up a room with my story. No one knew what to say. I barely knew what to say.

My friends — amazing, wonderful — were supportive but this deeper truth always lurked: At that age, no one wants to hear your parents are dead. No one wants to imagine themselves as you. Part of the freak’s power is she provides false comfort to the nonfreak: Thank God that’s not me.

Sudden orphanhood punches you in the face, sneaks away but peeps around a corner to stare at you blankly, punches you in the face again, vacuums your emotions until you’re numb, and repeats.

On my birthday, weeks after my mom died, I went by myself to Six Flags. Roller coasters were the only thing I could fathom that might pummel the grief, override the shock. It was easier to be alone, not manage others’ discomfort with my sadness. Alienation had a way of compounding. Driving to the park I couldn’t stop crying.

Two things hit me: Birthdays are inextricable from mothers; obvious, but I hadn’t made the connection that two people deserve the celebration. Second, I no longer existed in relation to anyone. A daughter to no mother, a child of no father. I’d never understood how much my identity was entwined with being someone’s child. I had no tether now, was floating like those enormous balloon creatures bobbing above a parade, meant to instill joy but often causing terror. The parental tether could never be replaced. I got a cat.

I’m good at sourcing humor in the morbid. But grief taxed that skill. I broke up with my therapist for gazing at me with too much pity. When friends complained about their parents, I thought: How annoying, yes, they call you frequently, you must spend holidays with them. Friends never meant to be cruel. They momentarily forgot my circumstances, that I’d kill for those irritations. I saw flashes of my future rites of passage, mangled. No one to walk me down any aisle. No parents to swoop in and calm their fussing new grandchild. No caring for aging parents. No death bed moment where a father and daughter resolve longstanding wounds. My friends were having milestones in ways I could never share. Years later, they still are.

For me, becoming a youngish orphan brought a complicated mix of self-pity and pity-antipathy, wanting people to see the upending of my world but be invisible, hoping to be taken care of and desperate to be left alone. Welcoming the freakiness and kicking it to the curb. I’d always embraced alternative family: punks, activists, artists, queers. But orphanhood was eclipsing other identities. Who were my people now?

I began volunteering at the children’s bereavement center three years after my mom died. I never expected to have so much knowledge about loss, so when I had some distance, I wanted to put it to use.

The kids, toddlers to teenagers, were grouped by age. The littlests didn’t understand death — the director kept a dead bird in the freezer to demonstrate (no breath, no heartbeat). The slightly olders, my 6-year-olds, thought death was silly and weird and dumb. Which I loved because yes, yes and yes. I was meant to be someone who “got it.” The kids frequently withheld feelings from their grieving families. Since I wasn’t connected to their loss, kids could talk freely without fearing their sadness, humor or confusion might make me cry.

It didn’t. Not in the room. But sometimes I left the center racked. To witness tiny humans grappling with the immensity of grief. The profound ways orphan-status impacted me in my 20s couldn’t compare to the profundity of loss at their age. A girl in my group tried leaping out of her mother’s car on the freeway to be with her dead father. That rendered me quiet for days.

Watching the kids become kindred with one another, less alien and alone, was indescribably rewarding. And for the first time since my parents died, I felt strangely, unexpectedly, like I’d found “my people.” Their honesty about death and sadness. Their refreshing irreverence. A little posse of freaks trying to make meaning of the impossible. Telling death jokes until we laughed so hard we could barely breathe and tears rolled down our faces.

Thankfully they were only half orphans. I’d never felt so relieved to be the only full orphan in the room.

Kelli Auerbach is a writer based in Los Angeles.