We wear everyday clothes, commute to work in everyday cars, and breathe the same air as everyone else.
But, for those of us who become parentless at a young age, it’s not that simple.
Orphan. It’s a word rife with clichés and negative connotations.
It’s hard knock life for us.
In the traditional context, an orphan is a child who has lost both parents through death. In the printing world, “orphan” represents the first line of a paragraph appearing alone at the bottom of a page—and is deemed unsightly.
Common descriptive associations linked to orphans are: pitied, abandoned, destitute, helpless, distressed, neglected, lonely, and impoverished.
These adjectives do resonate in some cases, but I am living proof that a one-size-fits-all stereotype does not apply to all orphans.
I lost both my parents early in life, but it wasn’t as dramatic as the movie scenes that tell the backstory of young parents dying at the same time in a car crash or comparable catastrophe. It was gradual: my mother and father passed away years apart from each other. And, in the aftermath, I experienced support and encouragement to pick up the pieces of my life and move forward.
Although I am no longer a child, I remain an orphan—it is a fixed status engraved on my heart, with a guarantee of permanence.
Being an orphan does not come with a straightforward roadmap for living, but I think there is a secret Sherpa who escorts us on a hike that includes monumental climbs, multiple forks, sudden bumps, and fortunately, elevation gains. However, orphans may remain a mystery to those who have never experienced the loss of both parents.
If it’s true that it takes one to know one, here are several keys to understanding and unlocking the mysterious heart of the orphan:
We each possess a superpower. The gift granted to us may be small, but it is no less mighty. Our covert talents have been divinely distributed to us as compensation for the lack of basics in our formative years.
We are tough cookies. Most of us are familiar with the phrase (and Kelly Clarkson song): what doesn’t kill you makes you stronger. Orphans adopt this adage as an eternal mantra that serves as beacon of hope and sustenance. Perseverance is an unparalleled hallmark of orphans; never underestimate the resilience and tenacity of an orphan to get a difficult job done.
Death is a fascination. We have a strong penchant to entertain macabre thoughts and dwell on death and dying for lengths of time. The dark cycles are temporary, and most of us resurface to the light after spending some considerable time brooding in our caves.
We have triggers. An orphan can lose his or her composure with the slightest glimpse of parental loss—it could be the mention of a song, the sight of a keepsake, the smell of a favorite food, or the sound of a voice across a room.
We crave acceptance. Orphans carry a deep-rooted sense of otherness that is difficult to shield. Feeling like an integral part of a group for a night out or an excursion with colleagues can dissipate the inherent loneliness that lies at core of our psyches.
We appreciate sympathy as opposed to empathy. Being an orphan includes membership in an unfortunate club who non-verbally communicate with and recognize each other. With a simple nod or subtle gesture, we can affirm each other’s shared status. Pretending to understand our plights and peccadilloes will not impress or comfort us. The ideal approach entails an ear to listen and a shoulder to lean on when we find a seldom and elusive moment to open up about our troublesome pasts.
We understand pain. Shards of grief get imprinted into our DNA from an early age and remain dormant until an unforeseen prompt reawakens aged hardships. However, we can also be kindhearted ambassadors for those who are currently suffering and are savvy confidants and counselors for individuals seeking compassion and solace.
The holidays are particularly tough. Orphans are enduring nostalgists with wild and vivid imaginations, especially during the holidays. We have visions of Normal Rockwell style gatherings furnished with all the trimmings: chestnuts, flannel, cozy fires, hot cocoa, carolers, and pyramids of presents. We know this is an unobtainable fantasy, but we indulge in what we dream might have been in a near-perfect, family-focused youth had our parents been around.
We are spiritual beings. At first register, this may seem paradoxical for people who have encountered extreme tragedy, but we extoll the virtues of the immaterial. In some ways, it’s a survival mechanism that we use to imagine a life outside the current one—a higher purpose. Existential planes, alternate realities, and the afterlife or afterlives are contemplated within the safe space of our souls.
Grief comes in waves. The tide of sorrow advances and retreats without notice or distinguishable patterns, and when it does strike, the impact is fierce. We require significant time to retreat and reflect when the flow of pain waves smacks us down—it can appear that we are aloof, moody, and insolent creatures. This is true from a myopic viewpoint, but deep down, we yearn to be light, easygoing, and fully engaged with our loved ones. But, sometimes it’s wholly impossible to put ourselves out there and be present in the mainstream.
“The truth is you can be orphaned again and again and again. The truth is, you will be. And the secret is, this will hurt less and less each time until you can’t feel a thing. Trust me on this.” ~ Chuck Palahniuk
Author: Kristen Ward
Editor: Callie Rushton
Copy Editor: Yoli Ramazzina
Social Editor: Lindsey Block