As we entered the winter holiday season with the celebration of Thanksgiving, it is important to consider those who are grieving during the holidays and how they can find meaning in light of loss. The Wall Street Journal has an article about those who are sole survivors, those who have lost both parents and all their siblings and how they can cope during the holidays.
Sole Survivors: Adult Orphans Preserve, Adapt Traditions
By MELINDA BECK
Every year on Thanksgiving, Elaine Shimberg serves a traditional meal on her mother’s old, ornate china and silver. And every year, she tells her children and grandchildren, “This cranberry spoon was Nana’s.” Having lost her brother, sister, mother and father by the time she was 63, she finds comfort in things they left behind.
“I’m sure the kids are tired of hearing it,” says Mrs. Shimberg, who is now 74 and living in Tampa, Fla. “But everything’s got a story and, by God, they’re going to hear it. It’s a way of keeping the memories alive.”
There’s no official term for someone who has outlived both their parents and siblings. I’ve been searching for one ever since my brother died last year at age 58. Our parents are deceased as well, and I’m feeling a weird jumble of emotions this Thanksgiving—miffed at being abandoned, guilty for having survived and obliged to do more to preserve the Beck family legacy. Mostly, I’m still in shock—like Macaulay Culkin when he first realized he was home alone.
Are You a Sole Survivor in Your Family?
There must be millions of other people who are the last surviving members of their original family. Roughly half of Americans age 50 to 59 have lost both parents, as have 75% of those age 60 to 64, according to a study funded by the National Institute on Aging. But as far as I can tell, no one has counted or studied or even given a name to people who have lost all their siblings as well. So let’s call them sole family survivors.
We’ve got much in common with “adult orphans,” what some sociologists have dubbed grown-ups whose parents are deceased. A flurry of books in recent years has explored the range of emotions they feel.
There’s impending doom—that gulp of realization that you’re next to die, or, as Christopher Buckley put it in his memoir, “Losing Mum and Pup,” you’re in “the Green Room to the river Styx.” There’s also an identity change.
“I’d been surrounded by this big, loud Italian family when I was growing up and then I didn’t have it any more,” says Tina Tessina, who lost both parents by the time she was 18. Adjusting to that loss shaped the rest of her life, she says.
Now a psychologist in Long Beach, Calif., often helping patients with grief. But nearly 50 years after her father’s death, she still wishes she could tell him when something important happens. “You grieve over and over and over again,” she says.
Losing a sibling can hit people even harder, some experts say. “You are actually losing part of yourself,” says T. Byram Karasu, chairman of psychiatry at Albert Einstein College of Medicine in New York. Although siblings may argue growing up, much of their identity is formed in relation to each other. People often feel “totally unanchored” when a sibling dies, even if they haven’t been close for years, he says. Some even take on their sibling’s interests or habits “as a way of gluing themselves back together,” says Dr. Karasu.
In other cases, becoming the sole family survivor can be liberating—particularly after a long illness. “My mother had been telling me she was about to die since 1984,” says Leslie Jacobs, a professional organizer in New Britain, Conn., whose mother passed away last month at age 87. Now, she says, “every time the phone rings, I don’t freak out anymore. But I also feel guilty for not feeling guilty.”
Many people switch careers, divorce, marry or move to another city soon after family members die, or are inspired to lose weight, start exercising, quit drinking and make other healthy changes, say authors who have studied them.
“The death of your parents can be the best thing that ever happens to you,” New York psychotherapist Jeanne Safer writes in her 2008 book, “Death Benefits.” It may take work, though. She suggests taking a psychological inventory and deciding which parts of your family dynamic you loved and want to keep; which you want to jettison, and what you need and didn’t get.
It’s also possible to have a “posthumous reconciliation” with an estranged sibling—by taking time to understand who they were independent of you, Dr. Safer suggests in her upcoming book, “Cain’s Legacy.”
Other sole survivors offer these suggestions for managing the holidays and keeping family memories alive:
Research your family history. Elaine Shimberg dug into her ancestry and wrote a memoir, “Growing Up Jewish in Small Town America,” published last month, including tales of her grandfather and great-grandfather, who were peddlers in Bulgaria. “We didn’t come over on the Mayflower, but we have an interesting life,” she says.
Some children get intrigued, too. Maureen Wlodarczyk of Sayreville, N.J., traced her Irish roots back 200 years—mainly so her grandmother would know of her colorful heritage despite a tragic childhood. “I dug for 30 years, and she died before I could tell it to her,” says Mrs. Wlodarczyk. Still, she collected enough for three books. Her own mother, Arlene Montanaro, now 81, was a frequent companion. “I stuck my arm through hers and took her along on a journey,” she says.
Make memorabilia meaningful. Reframe and restore old photos; create scrapbooks and shadow-box displays using old letters, tickets, newspaper clippings—anything that helps retell your family’s story. Allison Gilbert, author of “Always Too Soon,” had her father’s neckties sewn into a quilt.
Make connections online. More than a dozen groups of adult orphans have formed to meet and share emotions. The Motherless Daughters Meetup of Dallas/Fort Worth has 94 members and meets once or twice a month. “I believe we’re gradually healing,” says organizer Eileen San Diego. “I only bring one small packet of Kleenex.”
Jamilyn Cole, 34, who lost both parents in her 20s, says she posts photos of them on Facebook and within minutes, old friends and neighbors are sharing memories of them, too. “And I still try to live every day to make my folks proud.”
That’s exactly how I feel, too.