Young Orphans — support for young adults whose parents have died

Katharine Horgan, founder of Young Orphans, in yellow hat with street view behind her.

Six minute read

Katharine Horgan was first bereaved at seven, when her mum died from cancer, and faced anticipatory grief again at 24 when her dad was diagnosed with terminal cancer.

She tells us about her experience and how she came to set up Young Orphans, a peer support WhatsApp group for young adults who have experienced loss.

'I knew what death meant'

“I was angry that I hadn’t been allowed to say goodbye to my mum, because no one told me she was dying,” says Katharine. “The first time someone told me that ‘mummy might die’ was six hours before she did. By then, it was not a ‘might’ — we were there to turn off life support.”

Katharine’s mum had been in a coma for months and ill for six years before that — she had even meticulously planned her own funeral. Yet no one talked about this reality with Katharine or her younger brother until she had actually died.

“I used to get irritated when people said, 'at seven you don’t even know what death is'. Did I know then the extent of grieving and how it would pop up throughout my life? Clearly not. But did I know what ‘dead’ meant? Yes.”

Seeing my mum after she’d died

Katharine is convinced that being able to spend time with her body after she’d died was crucial in enabling her to understand her mum’s death and to say goodbye.

“I really think it was the right call that I saw her body in the funeral home. It meant that I never had ‘magical thinking’ about her not being dead. I knew she was. I’d seen her in a coffin, and I knew what that meant.”

“I went with my grandma, but my dad pushed for it to happen, even when everyone around him was saying, ‘you can’t do that’. I know that’s a touchy subject for a lot of people, but if I had one message it would be — show kids. I can safely say, 20 years on, it helped me.”

Katharine also remembers feeling strongly that she wanted to be alone with her mum, but didn’t know how to ask. “I understand why you might not leave a seven year old in there alone, I get that,” she says now.

“But if I could go back in time and change one thing, it would be for my grandma to ask me, ‘do you want a minute alone?' That was my chance to say goodbye, a chance I hadn’t had before she died, and I didn’t get to be alone with her to say it.”

Read about what to expect if you visit someone in Poppy’s mortuary

Taking part in my mum’s funeral

Attending the funeral, which her mum had planned in every detail, was also hugely helpful for Katharine. “She planned it entirely as a goodbye to my brother and me,” she explains. “She had even arranged for it to be videoed, in case we were too little to be able to remember it.”

Katharine’s mum vetted the speeches; chose the venue — the local parish church, but with a non-religious service; and picked the songs — Rod Stewart played extremely loudly.

There was only one thing on the day that she hadn’t personally okayed:

“Before the funeral, I saw my dad and my godparents preparing their speeches. It was so obvious that people that loved her were preparing to be part of this day.

"I asked what I was going to do. I demanded to be allowed to speak and I read a poem. That was the only thing on the day that was not vetted by my mum!”

Read Meg’s story about how she involved young children in a funeral

Expressing my grief

Katharine’s own experiences — both good and bad — and the stories she’s heard from other orphans, have made her very clear about how important it is to talk honestly with children about death and to allow them to grieve.

Yet, in common with other bereaved children and young people, there were many ways in which Katharine’s grief was silenced and sidelined.

“Unfortunately, my family was quite old fashioned. After a year, their attitude was that I should be over this — nobody wanted to hear me talk about sad things.

"I definitely thought that I was broken, because it felt like everyone else had moved on, even if they hadn’t. I was doing quite a good job of suppressing my grief, but it was always the spectre behind me. If I did turn to face it, it was just as overwhelming as it had ever been.”

Find resources and support if you are grieving

Feeling unusual

Another difficulty that Katharine and other young orphans face is that their experience is unusual. However kind people might be, it’s hard to find anyone else who truly understands what you are going through.

“When my mum died, my brother was the only other person I knew with a dead mother — my dad still had both his parents, my mum’s parents were both still alive.

"When I was at school, it was common if someone else’s parent was ill, dying or had died, that they would gravitate into my friendship group. It’s natural to seek out people who are further down the grief line. I was that for quite a few people.”

Finding my tribe

However, it wasn’t until many years later that a tweet from the Griefcast podcast led Katharine to set up Young Orphans.

“The original tweet asked for resources for young adults, rather than children, who’d lost both their parents. So many people commented, saying they wished there was something, so I suggested setting up a WhatsApp group.

“Three years ago, the group started with five people. We’ve got about 180 regulars now. Although we are called Young Orphans, it’s very common for someone to have lost one parent to bereavement, but the other parent might be estranged, absent or terminally ill.

“The group is active every day, and has members around the world, including India and the USA. It’s a place for advice; a lifeline for those whose parents are dying or have just died; and a safe space to moan about anything that you can’t moan about with people who don’t get it.

“For example, someone with a parent who’s terminally ill might say that they really want their parent to die. That’s not because they want them dead, but it’s because the waiting stage is awful. There’s not a lot of places where you can say that and know that people will get it.”

Remembering my mum today

Young Orphans can talk about their dead parents with each other in ways which would make other people feel uncomfortable or unsure what to say.

“Other people, people without dead parents, can treat you with kid gloves if you mention your parent. It’s incredible being able to casually mention something that’s not going to entirely nosedive the conversation.

"Having a dead mother is 24/7 of my life, I want to be able to mention that without everything turning weird.”

“It’s been 21 years since my mum died. I think that people need to know that grief doesn’t leave you. The next big moment for me, I think, will be going through pregnancy without being able to talk to my mum.

"There isn’t a point when it will stop, except maybe 50 or 60 when most people don’t have their mums any more — I’ll finally be the norm! There’s a lot to get through before that, including being older than she ever was.”

“Talking about all of this matters to me, because if there are little people in the world thinking the thoughts that I remember I used to think — that I must be broken because I couldn’t get over it — then it’s so important that we say, it’s okay to grieve."

Find out more about Young Orphans and get in touch with Katharine.

Find resources about how to talk with children about death.

To stay in touch with all the latest news and updates from Poppy's by email, sign up here or contact us if you need help planning a funeral.

Discover more articles