The death of a parent is a loss like no other. Our relationships with our parents shape the fiber of who we are. Without them in our lives, a significant piece of our identity may irrevocably change. When unresolved feelings or even estrangement remains, the loss of one’s parents can be even more complicated.
Becoming an adult orphan can be one of the hardest life transitions a person can experience. You finished growing up and successfully reached adulthood, but you still needed (and expected to have) your parents for years to come.
The loss of their support, guidance, and love can leave a vast emptiness and pain that might seem impossible to heal, even if their death was expected. Or maybe you and your parent were estranged or had a complicated relationship, resulting in a roller coaster of conflicting emotions.
For me, the loss of my parents felt like the end of an era and the loss of my moral anchor. Suddenly, I had entered a new level of adulthood. The guideposts had shifted and a new path needed to be forged. I was adrift and lost, anxious and afraid. The gaping void left behind from their loss was enormous.
Whom would I go to now for the unconditional love only my parents could provide? Who could answer my questions about the past? I did not feel ready to be the keeper of the family wisdom; that was their job. Ready or not, in many cases the death of a parent forces you to assume a new role or responsibility within the family.
Preparing for Loss
The level of preparedness can make a big difference in dealing with the loss of a parent. When the loss is anticipated, such as from a long illness or advancing age, you have to prepare. You have time to say goodbye and surround yourself with support.
This doesn’t mean your grief is any easier to face when it hits. You might still feel stunned and disbelieving, especially if you held out hope for their recovery to the very end.
On the other hand, the unexpected death of a parent from an acute illness, such as COVID-19 or a traumatic event such as a car accident, may force you to confront your own mortality.
If a traumatic event is involved, you could remain in the denial and anger phases of loss process loss for a long time. A complicated grief process can even lead to a diagnosis of major depressive disorder or even PTSD.
For example, a sudden, violent death puts survivors at a higher risk of developing a grief disorder. In other cases, if the child has a strained relationship with their parents, it can be doubly painful. They may shut down and pretend not to feel the loss.
Not being able to say good-bye contributes to feeling depressed and angry. Studies have shown that young adults tend to be more affected by the death of their parents than middle-aged adults. When the parent of a young adult dies, it’s often unexpected, in an accident, or at least earlier than average.
Experiencing the Loss
People react to grief in different ways.
There’s no single right way to grieve, no set amount of time after which you can automatically expect to feel better, no stages or steps of grief to check off a list. Yet the world around you may feel like it expects you to recover from your grief fairly quickly — after the prescribed 3 days of bereavement leave, perhaps padded with a few extra days of personal time — and get back to business.
Denying your feelings may seem like a route toward faster healing. You might also get the message that others expect you to bury your grief and move on before you’ve come to terms with your loss.
Grief is a difficult process, as well as a painful one. Try to not let the opinions of others sway you. Some people work through grief in a short time and move forward with the remnants of their sadness safely tucked away. Others need more time and support, no matter how expected the death was.
Losing your parents can cause you to question your identity. Am I still a daughter? The answer was and is yes, but in a different way. Our relationships with our parents live on in our hearts, minds, and memories.
Our parents live on in the way we honor their impact on our lives, traditions, and family rituals. For some adult orphans, the transition may mean the loss of a family home, mementos, and other treasured things. The responsibility to manage final tasks, as painful as they may be, can also be an important part of the mourning process.
For many, losing our parents means losing a sense of safety and security. It may mean losing people—perhaps even the only people—who loved you unconditionally, who were your biggest supporters, and who occupied the greatest space in your life. Their presence in your life may be matched only by their absence. The loss can feel overwhelming.
Navigating this loss may take time, support, and patience. It may redefine your life and reshape it, perhaps even changing your priorities. You may find yourself suddenly more aware of the importance of documenting family gatherings and traditions. You may also have a deeper appreciation for the things that create these traditions, such as family photos, recipes for special occasions, or assembling holiday decorations.
Physical Impact of Loss & Grief
In the short term, grief triggers physical distress. In the long-term, grief puts the entire body at risk. Some studies have found links between unresolved grief and cardiac issues, hypertension, immune disorders, and even cancer. Why grief triggers such grim physical conditions is still unclear.
One theory is that a continuous fight-or-flight response can cause long-term genetic changes such as lowered immune responses and even cellular deregulation that can cause cancerous cells to metastasize.
Emotional Impact of Loss & Grief
The loss of a parent is something that almost everyone experiences at some point in their life. Figuring out healthy ways to cope with that loss can be challenging. Grief opens the gate to a flood of complicated, often conflicting emotions.
Your relationship with your parents might have had plenty of challenges, but it still represented an important key to your identity. They created you, or adopted and chose to raise you, and became your first anchor in the world.
When faced with a loved one’s death, there are several distorted thoughts that can invade our minds. Two of the most prominent are “I should be perfect” and “They should have treated me better”. These thoughts both tug us in opposite directions.
You may feel as if you should have done more and that because you didn’t do more, you are a low-down, dirty, awful, terrible human being. If these thoughts are left undisputed, it usually results in feelings of low self-worth, low self-esteem, shame, self-judgment, self-condemnation.
You may feel resentment towards your deceased parents. You may blame them for neglect or bad parenting earlier in life. This is also unhealthy thinking as it leads to deep resentment, anger, and rage.
There may be genuine, legitimate reasons to feel mistreated or abused. In these situations, it’s not always about the death of the parent, but the death of any possible reconciliation or apology from the offending parent.
Therapy can get a grieving child back on their feet after the loss of a parent. In general, many people benefit from talking about their loss with a professional.
After such a significant loss, it’s only natural to struggle or experience difficulties coming to terms with your distress. No matter how the loss hits you, remember this: Your feelings are valid, even if they don’t line up with what others think you “should” feel.
Some emotions you might experience:
anger or frustration or rage
guilt, perhaps for not contacting them frequently or not being present for their death
shock, emotional numbness, and emptiness
confusion, disbelief, or a sense of unreality
hopelessness or despair
mental health symptoms, including depression or thoughts of suicide
relief that they’re no longer in pain
Regret or remorse
Throw oneself into work after death
Withdraw from activities and friends after the loss
Anxiety & Depression
Unresolved grief after a parent’s death can spiral into anxiety and depression. This is especially true when the parent dies by suicide. Adults who lose a parent to suicide often struggle with complex emotions such as guilt, anger, and feelings of abandonment and vulnerability. A 2010 John Hopkins Uninvertsity study found that losing a parent to suicide puts children at greater risk of dying by suicide themselves.
Even adults who are able to go to work and put on a brave face after the loss of a parent may suffer from pathological grief if they remain preoccupied with the death, deny that their parent has died, or actively avoid reminders of their parents indefinitely. This condition is known as persistent complex bereavement disorder. It can occur in 1% of the healthy population and 10% of people with previous anxiety diagnosis.
If you think that you or a loved one needs help processing their grief, seek help. A good grief counselor or grief support group can help make you realize that you are not alone.
Gender Roles & Influence
Both the parent and child’s genders can influence the grief response. Studies suggest that daughters have more intense grief responses to the loss of their parents than sons do.
This isn’t to say men aren’t significantly affected by a parent’s death, but they may take a longer time to process their feelings. Ultimately, they may be slower to move on as they tend to show emotions less and compartmentalize more. These factors affect the ability to accept and process grief.
Studies have also shown that the loss of a father can be associated with the loss of personal mastery, such as vision, purpose, commitment, belief, and self-knowledge.
On the other hand, the loss of a mother brings out a more raw response and a greater sense of loss. This can be attributed to the close, nurturing nature of the mother-child relationship.
It goes without saying that everyone has their own unique relationships with their mothers and fathers, and so your grief response to your parent’s death will be unique. Complicated bereavement can happen no matter which parent is lost and is dependent on the relationship bond between you and your parent.