It’s November. December is around the corner. And that means Christmas and family and connecting and time with loved ones. For some of us. For others, it means tolerating uncomfortable situations and putting on thick skin in order to survive holiday encounters. And for others still it means a season of loneliness.
There is a cohort of folks I think of often at this time of year. I wish they had a name. But here, language fails. I have a feeling this group is one with many members, spread out far and wide. These people carry with them a sorrow and loss that is hard to name and hard to express. They carry a grief that is disenfranchised, or not supported socially. They may feel isolated and not understood, yet in reality I think if we talked openly we’d find ourselves in the company of many who share the same experience and same pain.
While it may not capture it perfectly, I’m going to call these folks functional orphans. This is referring to the people out there who exist in families with parents still earth side, yet live in the world without the nurture and care and support that is thought to come with being a child (including an adult child) with a mom and/or dad. To be a functional orphan is to have parents, yet have no safe landing space. To be part of a family, yet to identify more closely to the experiences and aloneness of those who grieve parents who have already died.
Functional orphans can talk about holidays and family dinners and may be in regular contact with their parents, yet may live without the sense of safety and support that they deeply long for. Some functional orphans may have had this type of support at one point, but lost it in the the transition to adulthood, where some parents withdrawing the care and support that was offered in childhood under the assumption that their parenting job is complete.
Other functional orphans, most I’d surmise, have likely never really had strong emotional bonds or support from their caregivers. For many of these folks evidence of parental care would have been expressed during childhood in the day-to-day provisions of parenting – food, shelter, clothes, transportation from event A to event B. In moving from childhood to adulthood, these daily responsibilities are assumed by the child as part of being a competent adult – and what happens then is that in the absence of strong emotional bonds, adult children lose all tangible evidence of parental care and nurture. At this transition the reality of emotional loneliness may become more prevalent and painful.
Sometimes the pain of functional orphanhood becomes most acute when adults outgrow their parents, or become more emotionally mature or capable in the world than the people who raised them. This may happen when adult children create a home/life environment that is more stable financially, structurally, or relationally than the life their parents offered – and in light of this, the fragility, chaos, or emotional instability of their parents can be seen with greater clarity. It is difficult to feel adequately parented by people who present as less capable or competent than the adult child who seeks to lean on them for support and nurture.
This time of year, when there is much talk of family and tradition and connecting, I simply want to create space to acknowledge those out there who find themselves sorrowful or feeling a sense of loss and longing. I want to make room to validate the experience of grief that comes with not having the kind of parents you long for, folks who maybe love you – but can’t be the safe and soft landing spot that you long for.
If this is your experience, know that you are seen and understood today. That you are not the only one out there with a sense of wanting and wishing, and that your sadness is real and entirely legitimate. Our need for secure and safe relationships lives across the lifespan, and even as adults we still want and need soft spots where we can feel collected and supported well. Not having this in the people we are often thought to be closest to is a real loss, and one that needs to be acknowledged and honoured.
As you prepare to walk into another season traditionally associated with family time + connection, perhaps you will need to carve out alternate landing spaces where your need to be seen and supported are met more adequately. Perhaps other friends, neighbours, ‘work mom’s’, or friends’ parents, or in-laws will be a space you can exhale and land. Rather than walking through the season consumed by loneliness and longing, let’s be proactive in seeking out creative ways to ensure needs get met, and be ready with space for sorrow at the reality of this not happening in the way and by the people whom we would most hope to fill that role.