Coming to Terms with Being an Orphan
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Published on April 27, 2021

Sonja Hegman's parents

Coming to Terms with Being an Orphan


It rocked my world so hard that I spent two decades living in a haze. I jumped from job to job, place to place, aimless, never grounding myself, never putting down roots.

An ideal time does not exist to lose a parent. You’re never prepared, even if you know it’s coming. You feel blindsided, helpless. The last year has brought the loss of grandmas and grandpas, mothers and fathers, brothers and sisters, human contact. Meaning, we’re all collectively grieving for someone or something.

Still, losing your parents makes you morph into a full-blown adult, no matter if you’re 20 or 60 when it happens. You won’t ever be the same. I was an orphan long before my parents died, but I was 34 when it officially happened. My father had been ill for a year and a half with failing kidneys.

Sonja Hegman and her fatherSonja Hegman and her father

My mother’s death affected me much more than my father’s. Not that my father’s death was easy, but it was different. When he died, I’d spent 17 years on my own. I wasn’t a 17-year-old who had just watched her mother wither away.

The added bonus after my father died was being diagnosed with cervical cancer. I’d barely begun grieving for him when I was forced to fight for my own life. My own mortality distracted me from the grief of losing him. And, once again, I became numb and vacant like I had as a teenager.

When You’re Forced to be the Adult

While my parents were “around” until I was 17, most of my childhood was consumed with caring for them. My father was a diabetic. At a very young age I was taught how to bring him out of a low blood sugar reaction, as well as how much insulin to put into his syringe. My mother suffered from bipolar disorder. She liked to drink. I used to find her hidden brandy bottles around the house and dump them down the sink.

My life probably looked normal from the outside. To the world, my parents were loving. In private, they were loving to a point. I was never hungry and always had a roof over my head. When I was old enough, I had a car. I never wanted for material necessities, and that’s how they showed their love. No one knew the private anguish I was living in.

And I buried it. All of it. For years.

One of things my parents taught me was to hold it all in. If you don’t talk about it, it doesn’t exist. It disappears on its own. It won’t fester and rot until it becomes something unrecognizable. Until you become something unrecognizable.

Trauma stunted me in many ways and aged me in others, the most catastrophic event happening first to prepare me for the rest of my life.

My mother died at 53, her brain decomposing before her body finally gave out. She didn’t remember anything, anyone. Always immaculate from head to toe, by the end, my mother couldn’t brush her own hair. She couldn’t bathe herself. She couldn’t, well, she couldn’t do anything except pace through the house and cry.

Twenty-five years ago, my mother succumbed to early-onset Alzheimer’s disease. It was April and I was barely 17.

When Holidays Remind You of What You Lack

Since then, spring hasn’t been an easy time to for me. She died just after Easter that year. Her birthday falls near the end of April, and then May brings Mother’s Day.

Many of the early years without her, I often wished I could crawl into a hole at the end of March and re-emerge at the end of May. Some years, I did. Not a great coping mechanism, but a coping mechanism, nonetheless.

Though my mother had her issues, nothing was the same without her. She was the glue, not only of our family, but of our extended family as well. Everyone loved her. Everyone wanted to be around her. Once the Alzheimer’s really kicked in, no one visited anymore. It was too difficult to see a once shining star fade into black.

Many holidays I spent alone. Sure, I was invited to extended family gatherings, but all it did was remind me that my semblance of a family had broken apart, never to be mended again.

Grief Has No Timeline

Sonja Hegman and her motherSonja Hegman and her mother

As I write this it’s two days before the 25th anniversary of my mother’s death. And, for some reason, I’m right back in it. Perhaps, it’s the realization that it’s been a quarter of a century since my life imploded. Perhaps, it’s because I’m not using alcohol to run away from it anymore. Either way, I feel a bit like that 17-year-old sitting on the bench my father had built into a tree stump next to the river in our backyard. My parents used to sit and watch the water there after my mother was diagnosed. And I sat there, writing a poem about being told my mother wouldn’t make it through the night.

And sitting here, I’m reminded that grief doesn’t have a timeline.

I spent 20 years angry. I was angry with my mother for abandoning me by dying. I was angry with my father for not wanting one last year with me before I set out to pursue my life. For anything that went wrong, I laid the blame on my parents for abandoning me. I couldn’t see that grief was the actual problem. Being mad at them was easier than facing the unbearable sadness that consumed me.

I didn’t know how to grieve for my mother, my lost childhood or my broken family. What 17-year-old does? Adding to the scenario that the adults in my life also didn’t know how to grieve created disastrous consequences.

Still, despite the stumbles, the missteps and the trial and error, I have to say I raised a pretty good kid. I’m not quite a fully functioning adult, but I’m getting there.

I don’t know where I’d be without my grief. It has taught me a lot, and it’s made me appreciate the happiness that alluded me for so long.

You won’t ever get over losing your parents, but, in time, you’ll learn to live without them.

Sonja Hegman is a Digital Content Developer with Avera.

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