How Not To Be a Dick to An Orphan on Mother’s Day (or Father’s Day, or Any Other Day, For That Matter)

I am now at the point in my life when there have been more years of not having a family than years having a family.
Publish date:
May 11, 2014
holidays, how not to be a dick, mother's day, orphans

My dad died when I was a baby. (Actually, he faked his own death and I didn't find out until I was in my mid-30s, at which point he really was dead.) I lost my mother when I was nine. I was adopted by my mom’s mom; she died when I was 20. My adoptive dad passed away just six months later.

I am now at the point in my life when there have been more years of not having a family than years having a family. But honestly, it never gets easier. I was close with my grandmother; so close, that even now, 20 years later, at least once a week something will happen and I’ll catch myself thinking about calling Gramma to help me figure it out.

Losing a parent is devastating. Having both taken from you can be life-shattering. It doesn’t matter if they died at the same time or decades apart. For those of us who are orphans, particularly those of us who lost a parent or two young, it becomes more than defining characteristic, but the antecedent cause for just about everything in our lives.

Not that it’s much better for adults who suffer the loss of a parent, who, on top of having to deal with their own personal grief, often have their whole mature lives disrupted.

And needless to say, whether a person has been one forever or it’s still a recent thing, being an orphan on the touchy-feely holidays can suck.

We all know that Mother’s Day is just a BS holiday that was manufactured as a marketing tool, but somehow, that knowledge offers very little comfort on this day when everyone else is consumed with buying the perfect present, celebrating and otherwise extolling how terrific their moms are.

So if you’ve still got both of your parents and you just happen to find yourself interacting with an orphan on Mother’s Day, here’s what not to do.

Don’t tell me I’m lucky.

A lot of people seem to think being an orphan is a liberating experience: no family to foist expectations and responsibilities on you, no familial tension or drama. I have actually been told, at least 10 times in my life, that I am lucky to have no family. If you say anything like this to someone who’s lost a loved one, screw you.

Believe me, there are many things an orphan might feel about her situation, but “lucky” isn’t one of them.

And chew on this: My mom was a junkie who, in the course of the nine years of my life, spent more time in jail, mental institutions, hospitals and rehabs than she did with me. It was horrible to watch her emotional and sometimes literal, physical flailing. In some very real ways, it was lucky that she died before she could have harmed more people. And my heart goes out to all the adult children of addicts; I don’t see how you can do it. But do you think I wouldn’t trade everything I have ever earned in this world to have a couple of more days with her?

Don’t ask me if I grew up in an orphanage.

I mean, seriously? I grew up in late 20th century America, not Dickensian England. Orphanages, as most people probably conceive of them, began a phase-out in the early 1900s. Yes, there are still orphanages in the United States, but more often than not, young orphans are raised in some combination of foster care and group homes.

Don’t bitch about your overbearing mother.

I guess this is something that normal, two-parent-having adult people bitch to each other about, and I admit that I’m probably more sensitive than most (and so is anyone else who’s lost a parent). I’m not saying that having a mother who calls you often, begs you to spend more time with her and is just generally overinvested isn’t a real problem. But you can lay it on me 364 other days of the year; this day is not really a good time for me.

And that goes double if you want to bitch to me about how your parents aren’t giving you enough money for the downpayment on your house. (Yes, this has really happened, and the person saying it was someone I thought was a friend.) NOT ACCEPTABLE ON THIS DAY.

Don’t lay an inquisition on me.

My "orphan" status is one of the most essential components of my person, but it’s not something I bring up (and when I do, I don’t refer to myself as an orphan) but apparently, a lot of people trip out and just can’t process the concept. It is kind of novel, and upon learning that someone is an orphan, you may have questions, especially about how, when, where and why their parents died.

For those of use who have lost one or both parents, these answers are intimate. The pain of recounting it never really leaves us. I have reached a point where I can talk about it matter-of-factly, but it requires some preparation, or at least a moment or two to mentally gird mywel. So please, if you really want to know, ask politely. Better yet, ask if you can even ask these questions: For some people, the hurt is too raw and it’s enough for you to know that the mother or father is not in the picture.

Don’t listen to me when I say I don’t care and it’s just another stupid day.

Some women who lose their mothers early grow up unable to ask for or accept help -– the thought of being rejected is just too scary, and we develop a stubborn independence that, if not held in check, makes us unable to process the kindness of others. Even though it’s often what we want, more than anything.

Whenever someone asks me how I’ll be spending Mother’s Day and I retort, “Same way I do any other day,” I AM LYING. I am grieving in my own ways. Sometimes those ways only require a few minutes for me to have my little “sky talks” (as I call them) with my mom and grandma. Sometimes I may need to shut myself inside all day long and weep. It’s never nothing.

DO ask if there’s anything you can do.

Us adult orphans are an independent bunch; odds are we won’t ask you for any awkward favors like accompanying us to the cemetery or to spend the entire day in a blackened room handing us tissues. It's difficult for me to allow anyone to do anything for me. But the fact that you’re making an effort is huge for me. All I need from you on this day is a hug, some acknowledgement of what I’m going through – and the resulting feeling that I’m not alone.