Wednesday, November 23, 2011

Being Orphans - Eleanor Shepherd


This Christmas I am an orphan. I realized a short while ago that with the passing of my father last January, I have now become an orphan. Both of my parents are gone. What does it mean to become an orphan?

When a child is orphaned, they are vulnerable because they no longer have anyone to care for them. But what does it mean for us when well into maturity we are orphaned?

As orphans, we have lost those who hold our earliest memories. Our parents remember what we were like before our own earliest memories. They recall how we came into the world and into their lives and changed everything for them. No longer were they free to do as they pleased. This little person totally depended on their care and nurture for survival. They noted how we responded to their interactions with us and saw the emerging personality, before anyone else could imagine what we would be like. They may or may not have shared with us their reflections and conclusions about the kind of person we were based on these observations. In any case, with their departure there is no way to verify their observations. Being custodians of our earliest memories, that part of who we are disappeared with their departure. While our faith gives us the hope of seeing them again, our new perspective and transformed natures will make these reflections irrelevant.

What else characterizes adult orphans? The particular attributes of the parents determine what we have lost in losing them. In my case and the same is true for many others I know, the loss of our parents has meant a loss of a constant source of spiritual renewal. Some of us had the good fortune to be given parents who prayed for us from before we were born and every day of their lives, as long as they had breath. When they left this world, we found ourselves bereft of a source of energy and strength that we may have taken for granted or even completely forgotten. Sometimes at an almost subconscious level, when this constant spiritual energy source is gone, there is a strange sense of void that we cannot quite put our finger on.

Whether parents have been the praying kind or not, they have tried to care for us and have given us a unique gift – our name. They were the first ones to call us by our name. The giving to us of our name created a distinctive bonding between us that lingers when we have grown and become completely independent from them in all other obvious ways. The name they chose for us is a particular marker of a stage in our relationship that in some ways may have shaped the person we have become. When they have gone, we still carry that name and it becomes a part of our legacy.

A child who has been orphaned may have only a few mementos to remind her of the parents that she has lost. We who are orphaned after many years of relationship with our parents may have material goods that they have passed on to us. More importantly, however, in our awareness of our loss, is that bank of memories where we have deposited from times spent together. Not only did we deposit them we also withdraw them. We have occasions through the years to take out the memories and examine them, giving us opportunities to discover facets of them we might have overlooked in earlier years.

Our long-term relationships with our parents gave us the chance to develop some perspective on our mutual strengths and weaknesses. We were able to make allowances for each other and forgive each other for our human failings. As we return the memories to the bank, after examining them more closely based on our own life experiences, we may see them transforming, so that hurt of the painful ones become less acute and the pleasurable ones increase in enjoyment.

As orphans, there are aspects of our past that have gone forever. We can never again have access to them. Yet, there are also keepsakes that are ours forever. Whether the relationships have been nourishing or draining or a mixture of both, the greatest treasure that we received from God through our parents is life itself. How we choose to honour this gift is finally our choice and will help us orphans find our way home.

Winner of The Word Guild Award 2011
                         Christian Leadership Category


Peter Black said...

Eleanor, thank you for sharing your very poignant and reverential thoughts. You've evidently looked deep into your heart and experience since entering your new 'orphan status.'

Eleanor Shepherd said...

Thanks, Peter. I am grateful for your comment and your kind and thoughtful words.

c van gorkom said...

I will be visiting my parents for the first time today in about a year. Thank you for this meditation that focuses on so much of what they mean to me. The Spirit of God turns the hearts of the children to their fathers. Thank-you for moving in that Spirit.

nancytrombone said...

How do I get a copy of your book?

Eleanor Shepherd said...

It is available on and or from the publisher. Here is the url for the publisher
Many Christian bookstores are carrying it or will order it for you. If you want to contact me at and let me know you location, I will see that you are able to get a copy.

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