What it Feels Like When the Parents Who Abandoned You Die

Danielle Dahl, MSML

Orphaned at 26

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I am a Type A person who believes in always progressing toward the future. I avoid backsteps like the plague. There is no point in dwelling on the past and things we can't change. Significantly, the most painful and unchangeable acts like parental abandonment or the death of a parent. However, with this story, I feel the need to tell it backward. Weird, I know. So it starts today: I'm 36, I've just finished my daily walk around the lake when the swing set, and a long-forgotten memory tugged at my brain. I decided that this swing set would be my office for the day.

36 is a significant number because it marks the 10th anniversary of my biological father's death. My father was a complicated man, possibly one of the most complicated humans I have ever known. Unfortunately, I didn't "know" him for very long. We were only part of each other's lives for eight years before he died at the age of 50. I did know that he was brilliant and lazy, in the way that intelligent people tend to be if they lack intrinsic motivation. He was also a haunted man who lived with a lot of hate, anger, and regret.

Memories of Dad

As an adult, I have tons of memories of the conversations and times I spent with my father. Some were happy; others were fraught with differences of opinions and decades of pain. I don't have any real memories of my father taking me to the park as a child (I was 5 when I last saw him before we reconnected), but I do have a few pictures of us at the swings…

The day I got the phone call that he died, I felt empty in a way I do not have the words to describe. It's a visceral reaction when your last biological parent leaves this earth. I think it's worse when the previously mended hole in your heart caused by their abandonment is ripped wide open again.

I ended up looking for my dad shortly after my 18th birthday. I ended up leaving my college dorm to take a bus from Montana to New York to see a man I hadn't seen in 13 years because…my biological mom had died just three months before.

My mother

I was 18 when my mom died at the age of 40. I had been living with her for five months. This was the only other consecutive five-month period I had spent with her since Kindergarten.

My mom was an intelligent, warm, talented, and troubled woman. She once auditioned for Juilliard and would have been accepted if her high school attendance rate could have been considered "existent."

Instead, she became addicted to drugs, danced at strip clubs, and joined a biker gang. This was not conducive to child-rearing. She would always promise we would live with her when:

  • she got a decent job
  • when she got a house
  • when she got sober.

The hole, made by not knowing my father, was constantly ripped apart by my mom. Throughout my life, she would walk in with a band-aid, only to rip it off ever so slowly and painfully every time she would walk away again. During my childhood, she would walk away many times, never keeping any of her promises.

Then, the summer before my freshman year, my mom and her husband entered witness protection. She would call randomly and infrequently over the next four years. Those high school years were some of the toughest of my life…but I survived.

Before my adult relationships with either of them

I earned a college degree (an A.A) at 17 and a plan to go to USF, and study Journalism, with my best friend. I was determined to live a life where I could write and create change – weaving my words in such a way that people could find meaning. A few weeks before this mapped out plan was put into motion, my grandma announced we were going on a road trip. We ended up in Montana, where it turned out my mom had been living. One decision changed the trajectory of my future. I decided to stay with her, enrolled in school as an equestrian major, and hoped to write for equine magazines.

It was at the Rocky Mountain College barn that I got the first fateful phone call. It was my mom's husband telling me that I needed to come back to the house. I could tell he was crying and something was very wrong.

I remember my first thought was that my grandma had died because of the huge fight we had before I decided to stay. She hadn't spoken to me in months, and if I'm honest, that chipped a little more at the hole than I thought it would. But then some rational part started wondering why my mom wasn't the one giving me that news.

I kept pushing and pushing until he finally told me there had been an accident. My mom was gone. I remember falling to the ground, crying, but not crying as I had ever done before. This was a guttural and almost unnatural sound as if pieces of me were escaping from myself.

Thinking back on it now, I don't remember many of the specifics about what happened next. I remember thinking of the few memories we had created during those months together…and one memory from my childhood of pushing me on a swing set when I was in Kindergarten.

The impact of being orphaned

Sometimes the reality that I have no parents hits hard. When my friends talk about how terrified they are of something happening to their parents, I can't relate. I know my responses are different because I lived without them before. Sadly, I was already conditioned to not speaking to them or knowing where they were.

I don't feel these bonds that my friends do with their parents, but that doesn't mean that I didn't feel agony at being alone. Or at being left behind once again. My mother never met her children. My oldest child barely remembers my father. There are many things my parents missed out on, and there will be many more things that they do not get to see. The only thing I can do is keep taking forward steps and short breaks to feel the air on my face while I pump my legs on a swing set.

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Words matter. Sharing the pain and evolution found in our life stories compels others to investigate, “How they came to be who they are?” Delving into the events that shaped us as children creates a level of self-awareness each of us can use to establish enduring and essential change. I use my personal history, education as a Management professional, and training as a Life Coach to write insightful articles about leadership and teams, personal development, and everything else that pertains to growth, both professionally and personally.

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