When a Parent Dies
For Adults Who Lose a Parent
Saying goodbye to a parent is one of the hardest things we face in our lives. It is also something that almost everyone goes through. Ideally, when parents live their lives through to old age, we typically have time to “prepare” for the loss. Other times, parents may die unexpectedly, or too early in life, leaving behind children and other loved ones.
Losing a parent brings with it many other losses, including all that that person gave to you. No other bond exists like the one between a parent and child. There is a channel of love—of giving—that existed between you and that parent, and that channel was specific and unique to your relationship, even if there were ten other children in the family. When that channel is broken through death, there is an emptiness and longing that often follows, for those things given and received through that channel are also gone. Carol Staudacher, grief educator and author of “Beyond Grief,” said, “You are now forced to cope with the loss of that parental love and attention that was given uniquely to you, and that you depended on, possibly even took for granted.”
The loss of a parent is the most common form of bereavement, and even as adults, we are seldom ready for the death of a mother or father. Regardless of our relationship with our parents, we will always be their children. Whether one is ready for it or not, the death of a parent can bring many losses and changes. Who else will remember the first words you spoke, or the way you used to sleep holding your teddy bear? There are typically other losses, too, such as the long-term friendship of adult child and parent, the helpful advice, the emotional support during hard times, and the parent’s home where numerous holidays and celebrations have taken place. It is not unusual for some people to express feelings of being orphaned when a parent dies. Often the most daunting change upon the death of our parents is the realization that we have now become the older generation. The death of a parent brings a keen reminder of our own mortality-—a shock that often promotes a healthy reevaluation of our life and our values.
Seldom are we, as adults, ready for a parent’s death. We may be busy building our careers or raising our families; we may be spending our free time traveling or seeking to settle down; we may be living close by or a continent away from our parents. Whatever the circumstances, it is virtually impossible to prepare ourselves emotionally for the loss.
Loss of a parent is the single most common form of bereavement in this country. (Yet) the unstated message is that when a parent is middle-aged or elderly, the death is somehow less of a loss than other losses. The message is that grief for a dead parent isn’t entirely appropriate.
- Edward Myers - When Parents Die: A Guide for Adults
“No matter what the age of the parent or how the death occurred, the pain for the surviving adult child can be devastating."
- Katherine Fair Donnelly, Author of Recovering From the Loss of a Parent
As young people, we depend on our parents. Parents are caretakers. They typically provide us with information about the world, become important guides, and lend moral support. They also shape our perceptions about ourselves.
A parent’s death often leaves us with a sense of abandonment and even panic that catches us by surprise. But why are we caught off guard when the death of the "mama" or "daddy" whose name we struggled to utter as tiny tots leaves us reeling or depressed or sleepless? Because, although we may have lived enough years to be an adult, we will always be a child in relation to our parents. Even if we find ourselves "parenting our parents" at the end of their lives, it is the parent of our youth and childhood that we bury. And, as author R. Scott Sullender says in Losses in Later Life, "The world is a different place after our parents die."
You may have depended on your parent for advice or information, or for moral support, and now have to get by without that dependable resource. You may have become great friends with that parent as you became an adult, and now realize that you not only lost a parent, but you also lost a dear friend—someone who knew you in a way that no one else ever will. Adjust to this loss can be very difficult and take a long time, especially if you had specific ways of being in relationship with your parent, such as talking regularly on the phone every day or a certain time each week, turning to that parent during times of stress because you knew he would just listen, gaining wisdom and advice on topics you knew she always helped you with, etc.
If you were in a caretaking role, you may have set up your schedule to accommodate your parent's needs. Not tending to all those chores and responsibilities may leave an emptiness at the center of your life that aches to be filled, almost as if you are not out of an important job. And if you were the child most involved with helping your parent, it's possible that other family members will now see you as caretaker and decision-maker for them, too--a situation sometimes complicated by the fact that siblings less involved may consider their grief to be more significant than yours.
Your Grief Your Way
We have a saying at griefHaven: The only wrong way to grieve is not to grieve at all. There can be a thousand approaches to grieving, and they can all be healthy and right for the person. No two people grieve alike, even if they were in the same family. That is why we cannot judge the way another person is grieving, as long as that person is “giving their grief a voice—an outlet.”
Ironically, our society shows very little understanding about the unique pain of losing a mother or father, even though close to 12 million Americans bury a parent annually. That is why support groups can be so powerful and helpful, since others who have lost a parent gather together to candidly talk about all they are experiencing. Together they “get each other.”
Well-meaning friends and others may seek to console you by saying, "Your mother lived a long, full life" or “This is the natural order of life” or "Your dad was suffering so much. He’s in a better place.” Platitude like those are generally not helpful and even ring hollow when it is our beloved mother or our dear dad who they are talking about. Even if we experience a strong sense of relief mixed with our grief, and even if logically we might agree with those platitudes, they don’t help. Typically what we like to hear are things like, “I am so sorry” or “I miss her too” or “I care.” Simple but truthful comments like that carry a lot more weight than trying to make us feel better, or sometimes actually trying to make the other person feel better.
The circumstances of your parent’s death may also impact the intensity of your grief. These factors include the current and past relationship with your parent, as well as your age at the time of your parent’s death. The timing of the death also affects survivors’ reactions. Was the death sudden and completely unexpected, such as an accident? Was there a diagnosis and then only a small amount of days or weeks before your parent passed? Was there short- or long-term suffering involved? All of the circumstances surrounding the death of a parent have an effect on the journey that begins at the moment of death.
But every survivor is vulnerable to a whole range of powerful feelings such as devastation, fear, abandonment, remorse, frustration, yearning, isolation, or confusion. And if you've been a caregiver who is now physically or emotionally exhausted, you will doubtless experience some relief as well, even though it may be sadly intertwined with longing.
When a parent dies, you are left with many emotions and waves of grief experiences, ranging from emptiness and loneliness to guilt and anger. Please see our detailed list of common and normal grief reactions, but know that some of the most common reactions are:
- Crying easily at various moments throughout any given day
- Longing and yearning for the person
- Confusion (“What just happened?”)
- A sense of disconnectedness (“Did she really die?”)
- Questioning one’s past actions (Why didn’t I…? What if I had…?)
- Anxiety and/or trouble falling or staying asleep
- Depression that comes and goes
- Lack of appetite (or voracious appetite)
- Frustration at many things in life
- Impatience with people who seem shallow
- Fear of others you love dying
If During A Special Time In Your Life: If your parent’s death occurred at a specific time in your life, such as at a time of a wedding, a graduation, birth of a child, or other pivotal moments, dealing with the loss can be even more difficult. For example, if you were struggling with health issues yourself, your parent’s death might raise questions of your own mortality.
If Estranged: Even if you were estranged from your parent for whatever reason, losing your parent may still bring up powerful reactions, including the more obvious ones, such as regrets and/or guilt regarding whatever caused the estrangement. For some, the lack of bond with their parent, such as in cases of childhood abuse or abandonment, death can eventually become a time of healing and closure.
The parent’s death will likely bring up all of the unpleasant emotions one experienced during the abuse. Unresolved anger is the most common emotion for people in this situation. Even if that parent was already “dead” to a child, the emotions cannot be ignored. It leaves people with feelings of unfinished business, lost opportunity, ambivalence, regret; and also feelings of relief and freedom. The only way to deal with these emotions is to face them in psychotherapy or grief therapy.
In cases such as these, grief is set in a context of unfinished business that causes a great deal of anxiety. It's important to recognize your ambivalence, or even dislike, and not be reluctant to explore and express negative feelings for fear of experiencing guilt. Working through both guilt and anger will help you to successfully come to terms with the loss. In a sense, you lost your parent before your parent died; coping now with the actual physical death means allowing your lifetime's accumulation of past conflicts and hurts to be given their due attention.
If Left With Unresolved Issues: If you did not have a mutual loving relationship with your parent, your responses to his or her death will, of course, reflect that missing bond. You may have been the victim of emotional or physical abuse; you may have had to care for yourself at too early an age; you may have witnessed parental acts of violence or impropriety, or your parent may have revealed some unpleasant, disturbing information to you before dying. For any number of reasons, you may now be struggling with feelings of relief and release along with feelings of disappointment, dismay, guilt, anger or yearning. You wish that you could have your parent say or do the things you longed for. You wish you could understand the rejection you suffered. You may even feel robbed of the opportunity to express your anger toward your parent.
If You Were the Caregiver: If the surviving adult was a caretaker for the parent, similar feelings of guilt and ambivalence will be experienced. A sense of relief—both for oneself and for the parent who was suffering—is normal. Losing a parent will also sometimes turn surviving siblings into caretakers for younger brothers and sisters. Pressures like this can delay the grieving process.
As with all grieving, special occurrences such as birthdays and holidays are especially difficult when surviving the loss of a parent. Renewed grief on these occasions is known as an anniversary reaction, and while these reactions can re-occur for years, they are most common for the first three to 24 months. These types of anniversary reactions are even more pronounced in children.
Judy Ball, in an article about the death of her mother, wrote, “Before I could assure her (my mother) that I would stay with her as long as I could, she was dead. The woman who had given me birth, nurtured me from infancy to adulthood, taught me how to pray and read and cross the street, and protected me from harm was gone.
“It had been a long, agonizing 14 months watching my mother go from stubbornly insisting she could continue to live on her own to needing more and more care as a series of small strokes, and finally cancer, took her mind and body. My family and I had been on a forced march, trying to do our best but never feeling adequate to the task.
“But with my mother’s death, memories of the months of exhaustion, fear, self-doubt, second-guessing-and, yes, complaining, ‘When will all this end?’- instantly vanished. I had experienced the death of loved ones before, but never did it hurt like this. I was almost 44 years old, but I felt orphaned.”
Find ways to cry and talk. Take advantage of opportunities to share your grief as long as you feel the need. More than likely, many family members will be comfortable hearing you talk about your deceased parent.
Friends, especially those who have not experienced a parent’s death, may be more inclined to ask, for example, how your dad is doing since your mother’s death than about how you are coping. They simply don’t understand how difficult it is for you, since they have yet to walk a mile in your shoes. Part of your job, if you feel so inclined, can be to help them along, since, even though they don’t understand your grief, they may also be avoiding the subject because “they don’t want to upset you by reminding you,” as if you ever forget! So use whatever they might say to bring up the subject to interject your own thoughts and feelings (see what to say and not say on our website).
If people around you do not raise the issue of your parent’s passing at all, feel free to introduce it yourself either in a more organic way or on specific occasions where you set a specific approach up ahead of time. For instance, if people are talking about something pertaining to their own lives and it reminds you somehow of your father who has died, you should feel free to chime in, “That was my father’s favorite movie of all time.” For a special occasions, such as Thanksgiving, you can tell people ahead of time, “During the blessing, I would like my mother remembered.” As frustrating as it can be not only that people say insensitive things or even the wrong things, we have discovered that they don’t realize they are being that way. For the most part, they just need some guidance from you as to (1) whether it’s okay with you for them to talk about your mother or father at all; (2) what they can say or do that is helpful to you; and (3) an assurance that they are on the right track. If your eyes get watery when they or you talk about your parent, then so be it. If tears roll down your cheek, good for you. It is most likely a sure sign that those tears needed to be expressed in that moment, and those are tears of love. You can learn a lot more about the power and healing of tears and why tears for some are a necessary part of grieving by listening to our Now You Know video vlog on that subject, as well as our January-March 2017 newsletter covering tears. In any event, although some people equate tears to being weak, scientifically it has been proven over and over again that it takes not only great courage and strength to grieve, but there is great power and healing hormones in tears.
So often we hear stories about the surviving parent and the children not speaking to one another about the other parent’s death. This is usually due to the fact that everyone either feels awkward sharing such depth of feeling, the children have never seen their father or mother emotional in that way, and they simply want to avoid feeling sad, so never bring it up. Just remember that part of what generally works for most bereaved children is not only bringing that parent with them into their new life without the parent there and creating a new relationship with him or her, but also finding ways to keep his memory alive. One way of doing that is sharing memories and deeper feelings with those who were closest to him. Visits to the cemetery can be a great time for a one-way heartfelt conversation with your mother or father. When you look in the mirror and the gray streaks in your hair seem to make you look more and more like your mother, tell her so. When you are sick, thank your parent for the special care he or she always gave you in times of illness. Just saying aloud the words "Mom" and "Dad" (or whatever name you used) is remarkably consoling and healing!
Forgive yourself for being human. Few of us have had trouble-free relationships with our parents. We may look back with pain at harsh words that were spoken, deep rifts that were left untended, missed opportunities to express love, and more.
This uneasiness can be fertile ground for immobilizing guilt after a parent dies and the opportunity for reconciling is lost. But we can be confident that our deceased parent forgives us and, indeed, recognizes his or her role in the situation as well.
We must also forgive ourselves for our imperfect efforts to be responsive as our parent aged, became more dependent, and placed greater expectations upon us. Geographical distance may have made it unrealistic to be the support a parent wanted. Necessary and appropriate limits on our time may have been an issue. Emotionally, we may not have been able to handle the demands made on us--switching roles with a parent, for instance, or making the extremely difficult decision to place a mother or a father in a nursing home. Once again, we can be consoled that our deceased parent understands and forgives us.
Just below the surface of our adult facades, there is a little girl or a little boy that wants Daddy’s recognition or Mommy’s embrace more than anything else in the world. And in the mind of that little girl or little boy, we may still feel that we have never quite earned either the recognition or the embrace. This kind of generalized guilt is not unusual with parents and their adult children. It is there in our grieving.
- R. Scott Sullender "Losses in Later Life"
Grow from your experience with this tragedy. If you have buried one or both parents, use the experience as a lesson in life. Father Leo Missine, a professor of gerontology, reminds us that the more we are involved with our own aged parents, the more we are preparing for our own aging.
Learn from the experience of losing a parent how to approach your own aging process in a healthy way, how to rely on friends and family for support in times of crisis, how to be a better companion in life as well as death, how to express your love for the special people in your life.
We can turn the losses we have sustained into gains. We can use them as tools to help us grow in our understanding of self and our sensitivity to others.
Don’t deny your grief or run away from it. Accept that you are grieving and allow yourself to be open to your feelings in the present moment. Know that it’s okay to cry, to be angry at your loss, and to enjoy the fond memories you have. What’s most important is to let yourself genuinely feel and express your unique experience of grief, to follow your heart and be true to yourself. Sometimes a counselor can be helpful when creating a life without a parent or parents.
Explore the nature of your relationship with your parent, focusing on the most important or challenging aspects. It also helps to talk or write about your parent's perception of you. How did your parent's understanding of you differ from, or coincide with, the understanding you have of yourself? How did that affect you? You may even like to express your fears, yearnings, or anxieties to a photograph of your parent. You can say things you wish you had said before the death, explain your actions or views, affirm your love, confide your less than positive thoughts. Seeking release in this way is perfectly acceptable and not unusual during the first year or so of the grieving process.
Second, you may find it calming and reassuring to keep a physical reminder of your mother or father near you. Any item that was integral to your parent's life or was especially important to him or her will suffice--a pin, a watch, a hairbrush, a letter, a shirt or robe. It will serve not only as a personal treasure but as tangible proof of your parent's individuality and attachments. At first, the selected object or article of clothing is an inanimate "companion" during grief, even a talisman, a comfort; later it becomes something which may be used to prompt a vibrant memory of a parent, to bring him or her back quickly and clearly.
Third, memorializing your parent in a special way is comforting. You may, for example, make a tape recording or video of memories in which you and others share stories, anecdotes or observations about your mother or father. Or you may choose to write a journal about your parent's life, including accomplishments, values, goals, background, wishes, mannerisms--anything and everything that is significant to you.
Fourth, think about what to keep and what to give away, not just of your parent's possessions but of your parent's beliefs, personality traits, habits, skills, aims, loves. Which of those will continue to reside in you? Which ones will you nurture? Which bring you less peace and comfort and can be let go? Through you, parts of your parent's individuality and influence can thread through each day ahead, each year, adding to the tapestry of your life and the lives that follow yours. In that dedicated way, your parent will never die.
Regardless of the particular circumstances of your loss, it is essential to express all of your emotions and to discuss your most frequent thoughts and challenges in regard to your grief. You can do this in several ways--by setting up times to talk with a friend who has also lost a parent, by joining a support group, or by talking with a pastor or counselor. What's important is that you can allow the feelings that occupy you, sometimes even overwhelm you, to come to the surface without apology. By sharing with others, you can more fully recognize just what issues are especially troublesome to you, which emotions seem all encompassing and what you are missing the most and why. Painful as it may be to face these powerful feelings, this is the route to healing.
We do not need the wisdom of philosophers or books to tell us that we cannot go home again, that nothing will ever be the same after losing a parent. Mom or Dad will not be there to applaud our adult accomplishments or offer direction at critical crossroads, to worry about us when we are ill, or telephone "just to say hello." The dynamics and the history of our family are irrevocably changed. So are we.
We now move to center stage to leave our mark on the world. But we do not move forward alone. We bring along with us a rich store of treasures from our childhood and adulthood- hard-learned lessons and principles, fond and painful memories, family celebrations and traditions. We bring who we are, thanks to the love, nurturing, and guidance we received in our formative years from the parent(s) whose presence we now miss.
Our life has not lost its meaning; indeed, it has taken on new meaning as we bury part of our past and write a new chapter in our lives. And, believing in God’s promise of a life hereafter, we can look forward to a heavenly family reunion.
I was never able to assure my mother that I would accompany her on the final leg of her journey home. But as I continue the second half of my life’s journey, I can feel the power of her presence. She is my partner!
Children’s Grief over Loss of a Parent
Psychological research has shown that a person’s age affects his or her ability to cope with the death of a parent. According to clinical psychologist Maxine Harris, PhD, in her book “The Lifelong Impact of the Early Death of a Mother or Father,” the loss of a parent before adulthood has a profound effect on the rest of that person’s life. The loss affects adult personality development, a sense of security, and relationships with the surviving parent and significant others.
Loss of a parent at an early age has been shown to lead to long-term psychological damage in children, especially when the parent lost is the mother. To prevent this, psychologists suggest grief therapy for the child, allowing the child to express his or her feelings and providing feedback and activities to pursue when grief resurfaces.
According to Psychologist J.W. Worden, and the Harvard Child Bereavement Study (HCBS), children have four “tasks” of mourning they must accomplish in order to process the death of a parent:
- They must accept the reality of the parent’s death.
- They must experience the grieving and emotional pain of the loss.
- They must adjust to the world in which the deceased is no longer there.
- They must find ways to memorialize the deceased, and relocate the lost parent within his or her life in a different way.
In a 1999 study in the Journal of Youth and Adolescence entitled “Children's Psychological Distress Following the Death of a Parent,” girls were more likely to experience depressive symptoms after the loss of a parent than boys. Additionally, younger children were more at risk for depressive symptoms than older children.
Children need age-appropriate support—that is, counseling and support that correlates to the way a person processes death at a certain age—to deal with the effects of the loss of a parent and the ensuing grief. Since people understand death differently at different stages of development, the emotional support they receive needs to reflect the child’s ability to process the information. Children almost always exhibit some type of regression behavior when a parent dies. It is important to recognize these behaviors as part of grieving and not to punish the child for them. Children might resort to a behavior they had left behind, such as thumb sucking, bed wetting, or uncontrolled crying.
Behavioral Grief Symptoms in Children Include:
- Searching for the deceased
- Avoiding places and people who remind them of the deceased
- Changes in eating habits
Adolescent grief is an area of continuing interest and research. Teenagers experience such a varying and dynamic range of emotions, sometimes responding to psychological tests as adults, sometimes through avoidance or masking of emotions, and sometimes they respond as children. However, we do know that adolescents are susceptible to short and long-term emotional damage from the loss of a parent. Teenagers may act out through risk-taking behavior, and disinterest in school and activities is common following the loss of a parent.
In addition to emotional reactions, children of all ages will suffer from physical symptoms of grief. Physical symptoms experienced by both children and adolescents include weakness, low energy, dry mouth, and shortness of breath.
In order to successfully work through the grief of a parent’s death, individuals need to be open to dealing with their emotions completely, to express them honestly, and discuss them with someone who can provide support. Only through this process will a person be able to resolve his or her grief.
The study and treatment of mental health issues is a growing field in the United States. People interested in the study of human behavior and in helping others will find a career in mental health counseling extremely rewarding. If you are interested in assessing and assisting people dealing with grief, you should consider a career as mental health counselor. Education and experience in psychology can lead to careers in counseling and therapy, or other psychology related fields. Request information from schools offering degree programs in psychology or counseling to learn more.
What Friends Can Do to Support You
We encourage you to share this document with everyone in your life who will be with you as you continue your grief journey, rebuilding your life without your parent there.
Family, friends, professors, colleagues and others in your life become an important part of your grief support. Yet, so little information exists “out there” regarding exactly what that means—what they should do. It is well known that those who are providing support can either make your grief journey easier or more difficult, depending upon their actions and words. That is why we include the broken down sheet of “What to Say; What Not to Say.”
A Final Story Of Hope
From as early as I can remember, I looked ahead to certain events that would usher me into the status I first called big girl and later called all grown-up—the first day of school, the mastery of long division, the first bra, the first date, graduation, age 21, the first full-time job, and should all else fail, that surefire marker of adulthood: marriage. I climbed the life ladder at a steady pace, as did most of my friends, but well into our 20s and 30s, when careers and/or families had been established, we would still occasionally confide to one another, "You know, I don't really feel grown-up." Approaching 40, I speculated that this was perhaps one of the best-kept secrets of life, that nobody ever really feels grown-up.
And then, all too suddenly, I grew up. The events that catapulted me over the barrier to my own maturity were the unanticipated sickness and death of my mother, followed two years later by the sickness and death of my father. When my older brother, my only sibling, died two years later, I was emotionally unmoored, adrift in the wreckage of lost love, lost lives, and my own shattered identity.
Slowly, a new self emerged, one that felt and claimed the status of grown-up. Central to that new self was a vivid, visceral knowledge of my own mortality. My sense of likely life span shrank from a wishful 99, the age of my maternal grandmother at her death, to 75, the age of both my parents at their deaths, to 50, the age of my brother at his death. At 45 I felt I had five years to live, and when I exceeded 50, I began to feel I was living on borrowed time. Days, then years, arrived as a gift, unearned, which I received with both gladness and a degree of guilt. As the predictive power I bestowed on my personal mortality math waned, what replaced it was the awareness of how vulnerable every life is, how uncertain its duration. Death embedded deep in me a knowledge of my limit, our limits, and that, oddly enough, felt like the beginning of maturity.
For a while, that knowledge seemed to separate me from many friends of my age, but more than ten years later, I am far less alone in my losses.
What I have learned from my friends is that a single death can transform your life, especially if the death is that of your mother or father. And it doesn't matter whether that parent was beloved or resented, whether the relationship was close or distant, warm or cold, harmonious or hotly conflictual. It doesn't even matter how old you are, or how old your parent was at the time of death. For most people, the death of a parent, particularly when the parent is of the same sex, is life altering.
Anyone who has lost a mother or father knows this, and yet there is little social recognition of parental death as a milestone of adult life. Even more remarkable is the near total vacuum of professional research on this subject. There is an enormous, burgeoning field of psychology called bereavement studies, but in the 814 pages of the Handbook of Bereavement Research, the bible of the field, only four are devoted to the subject of an adult child's loss of a parent.
Thanks to the following for their input: Susan Whitmore, CEO/Founder, griefHaven
Judy Ball, free-lance writer, Cincinnati, director of communications for the Ohio province of the Sisters of Notre Dame de Namur.
GriefWorks, Sam Quick, Professor Emeritus, Human Development and Family Relations Specialist, Kentucky Cooperative Extension Service.
Sources of additional help
Making Peace With Your Parents by Harold Bloomfield, New York, New York, Ballantine, 1983.
Losing a Parent: Passage to a New Way of Living by Alexandra Kennedy, San Francisco, California, Harper, 1991.
The Orphaned Adult by Marc D. Angel, New York, New York, Human Sciences Press, 1987.
Refer to the recommended books, griefHaven.org.