The hidden pain of being an 'adult orphan'

I’m an adult orphan: Years after losing both my parents I still struggle with grief and feel ‘weak and alone’ without them and cut off from my family history

  • Jaci Stephen, a Welsh writer based in New York, shares her thoughts on grief 
  • READ MORE: Allison Holker offers hopeful message on grief and survival a year after the death of husband

Christmas is the time I most miss my mum. She would arrive at my house on December 23, with a car packed with enough stuff to see her through a six-month safari. Homemade Christmas puddings; her famous fruit cake with marzipan and enough frosted icing to line an entire Alp; tin of Quality Street; dates and nuts; my sackful of presents – all accompanied by her little Bichon Frise, Maddie, yapping and over-excited, the promise of turkey already in her nostrils.

Every occasion I used to celebrate with Mum is a now one tinged with pain. Birthdays, Mother’s Day, Easter (which, as an avid churchgoer, she loved). Every one of them intensifies my feelings of loneliness and, at its worst, the sense of a life in freefall, in which the only person there to scoop me up when I flounder is no longer there.

This will be my fifth Christmas without Mum, following her death in 2019. Dad died nearly 34 years ago, aged only 60, due to a weakened heart following a lifetime of smoking. I was 33 back then. Although Mum had many years on Dad, when she died of breast cancer at 87 I still felt utterly bereft. I had become an orphan.

UNICEF defines orphan as ‘a child under 18 years of age who has lost one or both parents to any cause of death’. Typically, we think of sad little children when we think of orphans. Yet anyone whose parents have both died is an orphan.

Becoming an orphan in adulthood is rarely discussed because losing parents is considered ‘natural’, the ‘normal’ pattern of life. The loss of an elderly parent earns special dismissal: He/she had ‘a good life’, ‘a decent innings’. It was ‘time to go’, ‘they’d had enough.’

Jaci Stephen (pictured), a Welsh writer based in New York, shares her thoughts on grief after losing both her parents in adulthood

But that’s me now. An adult orphan. I’m no Oliver Twist, humbly asking for another bowl of gruel, but neither am I Black Panther the Orphan King with his superhuman strength, speed, stamina and endurance. Because I feel weak. Alone.

I grieved for Dad every day following his death, but since losing Mum as well, I feel not only emotionally at sea, but cut off from my entire history, things only they held. And I cry for both Mum and Dad and the childhood I feel has died with them.

My brother Nigel and I enjoyed a happy time growing up. As a family, we did ballroom dancing, and my partner and I won many Old Tyme national championships. Sixteen, however, saw the start of a depression when I was groomed (as we now know it) by a schoolteacher. While largely under control now, depression has followed me all my adult life.

Intense grief over Dad saw it spiral out of control. I was just starting out in London as TV Critic on the London Evening Standard. It had taken me four miserable years on the dole before landing my dream job that was the start of a career that I am fortunate to have to this day.

I worshiped Dad. A very talented mechanical engineer, he was the kindest, gentlest and sweetest of men, and his absence left an emotional chasm that has never been filled.

Without Dad, Mum became more difficult. I moved to Bath, seven miles away from her in Bristol, in the hope that we would be of mutual support. Married for 37 years at that time, Mum missed Dad terribly, but far from being able to share our grief, it separated us emotionally. She was grieving a husband; I was grieving a father, and Mum’s loss always took precedence.

‘What I miss most about your father,’ she once said, ‘is that he always told me I was right, even when I was wrong.’

Meanwhile Mum always told me I was wrong. Even when I was right.

Jaci, pictured centre with her parents during graduation, lost her mother in 2019, and her father when she was in her 30s

Jaci – pictured as a child with her mother and father – admits she feels ‘cut off from her entire history’

I am, however, full of admiration for how Mum carried on. She had no desire to marry again and showed no interest in anyone else. She had been to college for the first time at the age of 50 after a life hairdressing, and now pursued a post-graduate Master’s in the area of play therapy, specialising in child abuse.

She was active in CRUSE, the bereavement counselling service, and I know, from the many people who contacted me following her death, how incredibly supportive, often life-saving, she had been to so many.

But Mum became very difficult during her final years, especially the two preceding her death when, after breaking her kneecap, she was confined to an armchair and, ultimately, dependent on carers four times a day. She was not a good patient. She was convinced some of the carers were stealing from her and she refused to have her dinner at certain times. ‘I’ve told you not to come when Emmerdale is on!’ she would angrily shout, tossing her plate aside.

Jaci pictured with both her parents as a baby. Her mother had been to college for the first time at the age of 50 after a life hairdressing, and pursued a post-graduate Master’s in the area of play therapy, specialising in child abuse

Jaci describes her dad as a ‘very talented mechanical engineer’ who was kind, gentle and sweet

Jaci, pictured when she was young, revealed that there she found there was an ‘undoubtable’ difference in losing a parent in your 30s as opposed to your 60s

It wasn’t just Emmerdale. Tipping Point, followed by The Chase, then Home and Away, and Coronation Street after Emmerdale. All of them took priority over not only her food but her physiotherapy if that too got in the way of her love of TV.

I had to stifle my anger at her stubbornness when she was in and out of hospital, as she resented her independence slipping away. Yes, I got it. But she took out much of that resentment on me, despite my regularly flying back from the USA, where I’d moved in 2008.

Having sustained several injuries rushing around and, at one point, having a near breakdown, I thought I would feel relieved when she died. But I didn’t. Not only did I feel overwhelming compassion for the misery of her latter years, I felt, and still feel, a grief that is, most days, overwhelming, often unbearable.

A mother is the body from which you came, the very root of your life force, the place where you were formed before you saw the light of day. You are connected, literally and metaphorically, and for me the umbilical cord was never cut, despite often fractious times in our relationship.

It took me three years not to get over my dad, but to absorb what had happened, and no amount of therapy or anti-depressants speeded the process. Nearly five years after Mum’s death, I am still not even close to absorbing it.

There is undoubtedly a difference in losing a parent in your 30s as opposed to your 60s. For me, my 30s were racked with insecurities and many problems, both emotionally and financially.

The writer, pictured, admits that dealing with being an adult orphan has thrown her own mortality into the spotlight

In your 60s, you are surrounded by many others in the same boat. I have spoken with so many who confess to still grieving for their parents and thinking of them every day. Sharing our experiences makes the load a little lighter.

But my safety blanket has gone. I reach for the phone when I receive good or bad news, as Mum in particular would have been there for me. Nobody knows you better than your parents and I always said about Mum that despite her not knowing a huge amount about my life (unless she saw my name in print or my face on TV, she showed little interest), she knew me better than anyone.

Instinctively, she knew when I was sad, unhappy, stressed, and I know how much she loved me. When she died, people said ‘She was so proud of you’, but it was a word she never liked using, probably because of her strong religious beliefs – pride being a sin and all that nonsense.

Dad was always there for me, too, but less demonstratively, being the strong silent type. I grieve for both parents, but differently. I cry that I no longer have Mum to buy presents for at Christmas. I cry, quite simply, because she isn’t here.

I have a brother, Nigel, to whom I am very close, but he lives on the other side of the country with his wife near her family. We often talk about our parents, though Nigel finds it more difficult. Like Dad, he is moved to tears easily, which often suppresses my own desire to discuss things in greater depth.

The hardest thing about being an adult orphan, however, is how much it has thrown my own mortality into the spotlight. I live in constant fear: of dying young, like Dad; of dying incapacitated in an armchair, reliant on Emmerdale for company, like Mum.

And the toughest fear of all? The years I have left, without Mum or Dad holding my hand.

* Adult Orphan by Jaci Stephen is published on, available in the online Lulu Bookstore £3.99

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