Losing both of your parents in your 20s

"If you get to 26 and both your parents are dead, you will  spend a lot of time worrying about your own life expectancy."

"If you get to 26 and both your parents are dead, you will spend a lot of time worrying about your own life expectancy."

I've always been frightened of death.

Will I be in pain? Will I have time to say goodbye? How soon? What do I have to squeeze in between now and then, to know I've done enough. What is enough in a lifetime anyway?

This worries me more than it does most of my friends.

At 19, when I managed to squeeze into my important late-teenage life, a visit to my father in hospital, he'd already checked out; only his body remained, shrunken under the blanket pulled up to his neck.


At 26, just a few months after I was 'finally' married, mum died too. She knew she was sick so I had plenty of warning and sat in her room until the last last rattle of her lungs. The final moment when I could squeeze her hand and she could squeeze back.

If you get to 26 and both your parents are dead, you will have very strange feelings about yourself. One, that you are an orphan. Two, that since you have no parents, you are actually an adult. And three, that your relationships with your siblings – in my case, a brother and a sister – would somehow fill up the gap your parents left.

And if you get to 26 and both your parents are dead, you will also spend a lot of time worrying about your own life expectancy. What it will mean for the people you love. Should you actually love, when you imagine you will be gone soon? My parents have been dead for a long time but I can still say their deaths utterly destroyed me for years.

That does not happen so much if your parents died when you really are an adult, say 60. No-one says to 60 year olds, you are an orphan. You've had the chance to grow up and bounce that growing-up against your own adults. When the parents of my friends die now, it's always as if peace has been made. There are lots of chances to reminisce about achievements, or, 'that time when'.

That didn't happen to me. People never once said to me, your parents had a good innings. Instead they said, they were too young, taken too soon. There was so much they wanted to see you do. Have kids. Make a success of yourself. See your marriage survive.

So, mum died at 63, dad died at 57. And then eight years ago, my only sister died at 57 too. My brother and I sat at the final few hours at her bedside and sobbed. You know that feeling when your heart is so heavy, you think it will fall out of your chest and there will be nothing in its place? That's how we were.

Last year, I turned 57. And I waited and waited for the year to be over.

There was no sense to it, of course. You don't die from being 57.

But I felt I'd moved into swampy lowlands, where nothing could predict whether I would survive. Death came to both my sister and my father sudden, unexpected.

But the deaths of my parents and my sister were all what you'd describe these days as preventable. The smokes and the fat were things you could choose to avoid, unless you'd had the experience of escaping from Europe as a refugee. For my parents at least, smoking was a way of dealing with the stress of being strangers in a very strange land. And eating. So much eating. Comfort food, every day, all day. Our family table was constant.

So just after my sister died, when I was at my most vulnerable and 100 kilos plus, my GP decided to give me a little fright by getting her receptionist to ring and demand to see me urgently. When you are fresh with grief, you are also at your most impressionable. And she knew that, the little sneak. She'd decided to commit me to some barbaric regime where you had to eat, drink and exercise in moderation. The cheek. In the meantime, she was forever taking my blood pressure, my cholesterol, my weight. I resented it the entire time.

Until I didn't.  That moment turned up about two weeks ago.

All last year, I wondered what would turn up to remove the possibility I would ever see my putative grandchildren, or at least their fur equivalents. I had my kids much younger than my mum so my kids already have stable relationships and jobs; but still all in the early stages.

I've lived longer than my dad; and longer than my sister. My darling brother and I have lost 120 kilos between us. On the age leaderboard, Mum's still out in front at 63. That seems like such a long way off to me. Oh, I have no fear of getting old. I would love to get old.

On April 10, I woke up.

I looked around my bedroom and at the light coming in through the bottom of the blind. And thought about the last 12 months and my fear of dying.

Then I turned over to my lovely husband.

"I'm alive."

And he put his hand on my cheek and said: "Of course you are."


Follow me on Twitter @jennaprice or email jenna_p@bigpond.net.au