Guest Post: My Identity Shattered Like A Dropped Mirror When I Was Orphaned At 19

Updated: Nov 21, 2020

About the author: Suchandrika Chakrabarti is a freelance journalist, podcaster and comedian based in London, England. She is working on a book about grief and the internet.

I was 16 and in the Lower Sixth at school, just starting my A-Levels, when my mother died in January 2000. I was 19 and about to head home for the Easter holidays during my second year of university when my dad died.

Even though we're legally adults at 18, no one mistakes a person that young for someone who's a real grown-up, because we're not. Our identities at 18 - if we're lucky enough to have loving families - are inextricably bound up with our parents. At 18, we're sons and daughters, balancing on the doorstep of adulthood, with our parents stood at a little distance behind us, just in case. As they did with us when we were toddlers, they are there to mirror our expressions and experiences. That gives us the confidence to take risks: for a baby, crawling. For an 18-year-old: to leave home for work or university. For a 25-year-old: well, I don't know, you'll have to tell me. Through our twenties, our parents let us help to hold the mirror, finally passing it on to us when our arms are strong enough, usually around 30.

For a little over a decade and a half, I was one of those lucky ones, brought up with love, security and the expectation that both would last far into the future. We were all wrong. At 19, a few weeks before I turned 20, I found myself sat silently on a hospital fire escape with my brother who's seven years older than me, having just seen our father die. We stared into the middle distance. At that point, numb with shock, I couldn't see the shards of mirror lying all around us. 

After the shock had died down, I went back to university and ignored my grief. I was hoping it would go away, but it was just stored in a box for later. After graduating and getting out in the real world, I started to wonder how to define myself. Was I still a daughter? In the absence of extended family - my parents had moved halfway across the world from Calcutta, India a few decades before, re-defining themselves as immigrants and minorities - I wasn't really a cousin or a niece or a granddaughter, not in the sense that I could look to those relatives for support. The question of identity prompted another, much larger question: does love disappear when that person dies? Do I think and speak of that love in the past or present tense? 

As we head through our 20s, we build an identity separate from our parents. While we're developing this, we meet new people and have to explain ourselves to them, the works in progress that we are. Even the most innocuous questions were hard for me to answer: "What are you doing for Christmas?" asked in November over a cup of tea at work. "Are your parents Bengali?" when introduced to someone with a similar background to you at a party. "What do your parents do?" when settling into a good conversation on the second date. It's a litmus test of the people around you how they react to your answers. I'm sorry to say that most of the people you'll meet in your 20s - if they're 20-somethings like you - will fail the test. Instead of acid or alkali, the little strip of paper will come up blank - they'll disappear. So much death is at odds with their youth and vitality. They can't listen to you. 

When we lose parents in childhood, we often become over-achievers, striving to earn that parental pride that they never got to experience in reality. Losing parents at the moment of crossing that blurred line between late-teenagehood and one's twenties has been less studied by experts. It's a moment when we should be separating from our parents, but safe in the knowledge that they are there, receding gently into the background of our lives. We crawl away from our parents and try to stand on wobbly legs, safe in the knowledge that they're there, just out of sight, poised to catch us. But, when your parents leave home before you - as mine did - what happens next? 

I had to become an adult while piecing together the mirror that was lying in shards the day my dad died. I had to hold it up with shaky hands while seeing other people my age be given a parent's supportive hand when they needed it. I dropped my mirror again and again and again. Each time I did, I attempted to put it back together myself. It has been the work of my life so far. Since I turned 30, my grip on the mirror has become surer and more relaxed. I know I can hold it up. Each year I figure out a better way to keep it securely in position by myself. Now, the question is: will I let anyone else help me hold it up? And what do I want it to reflect in the future? I still don't know for sure. All I can do is keep hold of it and love every crack that mars the surface because they are my battle scars. 

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