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6 Lessons You Learn When You Become An Orphan In Your 20s

This piece is written for young adults who have recently lost their parents, their lives forever changed by occurrences well outside their control. By sharing my own experience of witnessing my mother’s death and the following months, I hope readers can learn from my mistakes or relate to anything that might be similar to your situation. Mostly, I’d like to give readers hope and encouragement amid the struggles of this unwanted, unfortunate situation. An only child, I lost my dad at 17 and my mom at 28. These are some of my thoughts following my mom’s death.

1. When everything is said and done, more is said than done.

Guilt and regret packed heavy punches when my mom became ill and eventually passed. While these feelings may be natural, especially early on, they do little good in the long run. When my mom was first diagnosed with terminal cancer, my mind told me things like “I didn’t pray enough” or “I could have done this, said that,” something or anything different to change the outcome. During that three-month stretch between the medical prognosis and her passing, I prayed more in that period of time than the rest of my life combined. Meditation and prayer can change with the seasons of life. Praying and meditating are helpful but can only go so far sometimes; the rest is out of our hands. Realizing that this not anyone’s fault, least of all yours, can make some of the pain lessen.

2. Last words can mean everything or anything.

On her deathbed, my mom repeated quite a few times, “If you only knew, if you only knew, if you only knew.” This was about 10 hours before she passed. I knew she was frail, mentally and physically, so I didn’t ask for clarification about what she meant. Now, I have the rest of my life to play fill-in-the-blank. On a positive note, it could have been about how much she loved me, how much God loves us, how the afterlife would be. Maybe it was all of those; maybe it was something completely different. A couple hours later, she asked, “Am I dying?” I said, “I don’t know. It’s up to God.” She then said something inaudible, and said, “And that’s the thing about death.” I have a while to put in the exact meaning to all these blanks, but it all boils down to one word: Love.

3. A dream, like life, is what you make of it.

When the final breath and heartbeat leave a loved one’s body, it may take some time for the mind to absorb the magnitude of that person no longer being alive. I remember inking documents and setting arrangements but still not processing how my mom was totally gone. Kept busy with administrative assignments and arrangements, I remember being distracted, not fully grasping the big picture of why that paperwork had to be done. To me, this feels like sleepwalking. I recall finally being metaphorically woken up at the funeral when the loud Catholic hymns began to play, the songs chosen just a couple days earlier. That’s when I lost a part of myself and felt suffocated with sadness. For several days afterward, I prayed for a sign, for something that would give me hope to go on. About a week after my mom passed, I had a vivid dream, one that isn’t forgotten upon awakening, one of the few memorable dreams within a lifetime. That dream portrayed an aerial vision of my mom’s last breaths, with the nurses and family around the bed, even showing me during those final moments. This time, instead of her being pronouncing dead, my mom started to breathe and to move. In my dream, she woke up, and that was when I woke up. I looked at the dream as assurance that she was alive, just not in this world. Different thoughts, dreams, and occurrences are there to help people get through these tough times.

4. Emotions make you human, but be careful.

It has been some time since my mom passed, leaving me with no immediate family, and my emotions have been on high tide. In a rage, I’ve thrown possessions at the wall, breaking them and leaving damage still unrepaired. Out of emptiness, I’ve gorged my stomach with greasy food and drowned my throat in cheap alcohol; never before have I been in worse physical shape. Out of sadness, I’ve contemplated my own death and scorched relationship bridges. Out of this newly-created loneliness, I’ve subjected myself to being used by suspicious individuals. These are undoubtedly negative things that I’ve done, actions for which I take full responsibility. Excuses, like “grieving,” “fighting with demons,” “going crazy” and so forth, cannot justify my mistakes. These negative energies are losing force with time. I’m not well-versed enough in psychology to indicate when grieving ends, but I hypothesize that the grieving process never ends while we’re in this world.

5. Your job isn’t done yet.

Your love for the deceased doesn’t die when their soul leaves their body. It was your parents’ job to bring you up, to do their best they knew how for you to become the person you should be. This hard time we are experiencing is when it is our time to pay it forward. Just because the soul left the body and times will be different and maybe more difficult going forward, you don’t have an excuse to stop striving to be someone your parents would be proud of. Throughout the negative tornado of emotions, moments of hope surprised me, and in those unexpected visits, I prayed. This is the hardest but most important task. Pray for guidance, pray for your parents and their souls, pray for you to successfully complete your job. Your job is to live. And by live, I mean make a positive difference. It could be as simple as making a dumb joke to try to make someone’s day a bit better. It could be helping an older person with errands, like grocery shopping or housework. It could be a smile, a handshake, or a hug. Although there will be times when it will be indescribably difficult to continue living, we must. I wear a jelly bracelet that my mom used to wear that has the following inscribed: “Pray, hope, and don’t worry.” For those of us in hard circumstances: Don’t give up. No matter what, you can’t give up. If you can hang in there and give life your best shot, you’ll be in store for things you could never even dream of.

6. You’ll be alright. Everything works out.

To borrow from a James Bond movie, “You only live twice: once when you’re born and once when you look death in the eye.” Regardless of how unfair you think this is, death is a form of mercy. There may be dark mornings and evenings, but you will find peace ahead. You have to believe that.

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