I have noticed that many adult onlies write emails about the difficulties of managing elderly parents. It is often harder to cope with – when you are the only one. Part of this is the responsibility of care, both emotional and physical, but there is also the realisation of how becoming an orphan will affect us, when our parents die.
My own research and a piece of research undertaken in the US by Roberts and White Blanton (2001) concluded that ‘aging parents was the main concern for the young adults interviewed.’ They were also anxious about outliving their parents, and appear to feel a ‘lack of lifespan continuity’. What this means, is the sense that many of us have after our parents’ die that there is no one left to be a witness to our lives. (Sibling adults only experience this later in life if they are the remaining live sibling.).
From emails sent to me it is clear the close relationship onlies have with their parents, particularly if there is a lack of separation, can cause a level of emptiness when parents die that appears to be much greater, when there are no siblings to share this with. This is aptly summarized here:
“Without my parents – I have no one – what can I do? – I realise that I will bury my parents and it does my “head in’ worrying about who will bury me. I have no one. I am also terrified about old age – the vulnerability of the aged without someone to look after them. Will I be some lonely old lady without anyone to make sure they take care of me in the nursing home. Will I have enough to live on in this age of governments withdrawing from social security. Will I die in my house and no one will know for days or weeks? – I am so, so frightened. And so lonely.”
This email gives a very poignant sense of the child who is completely lost without a parent. As a psychotherapist experienced in dealing with anxiety – I was taken by surprise by how much my own anxiety increased after the death of both my parents’. After my mother’s death my father’s anxiety was high and I think I became so used to dealing with that I had not expected a similar level of anxiety would happen to me. However 15 years on I am noticing that sense of being alone in the world, an orphan is still strong. This phenomena of aloneness appears, from interviews and emails, quite common with only child adults, exacerbated if they have no partners or children
Why is this? Roberts and White Blanton’s research demonstrated that when their participants were asked about the relationship they had with their parents’, the majority of onlies said they were grateful for the close bond they had with their parents, often seeing them as ‘friends’ and spending more time with them than their own friends who had siblings. However this sometimes felt pressurised and the undivided attention they had received from their parents was believed by them to have negatively affected their development as adults. This was evidenced by their need to control, both people and situations. Others felt they lacked life skills because they had not been given enough responsibility for themselves. As one of my co –researcher’s said:
“I had no sense of myself as separate from my parents, so when they died I did not know who I was. It was if they were a part of me – so when they died a part of me died too.”
Whilst I do not think a lack of sense of self is necessarily true for all adult onlies my own research has shown that it is not uncommon. However I do believe that the only child who has been unable to separate psychologically from their parents is far more likely to experience this sense of desolation. Similarly an over protective style of parenting inhibits a child’s development into adulthood. They do not gain ownership of their lives or a sense of their own autonomy as individuals. This may lead to a sense of dread at the thought of the death of a parent because as we saw above: ‘when they died a part of me died too’. When a parent dies a great void emerges and that coupled with a sense of aloneness from childhood can develop into high levels of anxiety.