What Happens When You Become an Adult Orphan?

Certified Grief Counselor

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Losing your parents at any age can change your life, irrevocably altering the landscape of your family. The person or persons you grew accustomed to always being there to help you out whenever you needed advice, support, and understanding are no longer there. With their deaths, you’ll have lost some of the most significant anchors in your life.

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There is no determinative measure of how long grief lasts. The impact of losing your parents can likely be felt for the rest of your life. Facing life’s challenges now that you’ve lost your parents will seem a bit more challenging as you transition into the next phase of your adulthood.

Can Adults Be Orphans?

In short, yes, an adult can also be an orphan. An orphan is typically defined as a child under the age of 18 who has lost one or both parents.

When used in a broader sense, the word orphan applies to anyone who has lost their biological parents. Adult-age persons who have lost their parents can and still do identify themselves as orphans.

What Happens When You Lose Both of Your Parents?

Losing both parents close together can feel as if you’re navigating a ship through unchartered territory. You’ll start to question your identity and develop a heightened sense of your mortality. You may wonder if you’re still someone’s child or how long you have to live.

The death of the last parent to die can also trigger grief and mourning for the death of the first parent. This type of delayed grief reaction is typical in persons who never grieved the death of the first.

Tips for Dealing With the Death of Both Parents

In the first few weeks following the death of your last surviving parent, you can expect to be distracted by making funeral arrangements and having to notify friends and family. You’ll be preoccupied with locating important paperwork, wrapping up their financial life, and contacting utility companies.

Once things begin to settle, you’ll have more time to reflect on the meaning of your loss and grief will start to manifest. 

The following tips may be able to help you in dealing with your grief after the death of both parents:

1. Gather your support group

Your support group consists of people who can lend you emotional, physical, or financial support in getting through the death of your parents. Family and friends may be the first line of support that people typically turn to when grieving.

Consider asking for help with keeping up your household, looking after your children, if any, and helping you stay on track at home and in your personal life. 

2. Allow the expressions of grief

Once having lost both of your parents, in an instant, your life has forever changed. You no longer have anyone who remembers every aspect of your life from when you were born, who remembers what you were like as a child, or knows the struggles you went through growing up. 

You may feel numb after the last of your parents to die. After a few weeks, the reality of your parents’ absence will start to set in as will the first stages of grief. Allow yourself to go through these emotions without feeling shame or needing to make excuses for expressing sorrow. 

3. Reach out for help

There’s a lot of emotional suffering that you’ll go through once grief sets in. After the shock and numbness wears off, you might find yourself feeling emotions that you’ve never before experienced and may not know how to handle.

Reach out to those closest to you and tell them how you’re feeling. Invite them out for coffee, lunch, or dinner so that you can benefit from their companionship and support. 

Other things you may need help with that go beyond the emotional and physical are:

  • Obtaining death certificates
  • Registering the death with your local courthouse
  • Making funeral arrangements
  • Contacting banks, credit card companies, and utility companies
  • Finding the will
  • Hiring a lawyer

4. Find your safe zone

Having a place to go to where you are safe to express your grief will help you especially at times when pain and sorrow overtake you. It doesn’t matter how old you are when you lose your parents, the pain of their loss will be felt for many years to come.

Even if you are losing a parent in your 20s or older, you can feel the overwhelming loss a child feels when their parents die. 

A safe zone or special place for mourning will allow you to be alone with your grief, to contemplate the meaning of life, and what the death of your parents means to you. You can retreat to this place when you need to get away from it all.  Places such as under a tree, a closet, or your vehicle all qualify as safe zones for the expression of grief.

5. Keep personal items nearby

Continuing the bond with your parents even after their death can be done by holding on to special items that remind you of them. You can reach for these mementos when you need to feel them closeby. Other ways to keep their memories alive is to honor them in ways that are special to you and your family.

Try cooking special meals that were some of their favorites, donating to causes that they supported when they were alive, or making a patchwork blanket made of remnants of their old clothing - whatever makes you happy and keeps them close to your heart. It helps to have something tangible nearby to reach for when you need to feel them close.

6. Share memories of them

Another great way to keep the essence of your parents alive is to share memories of them with your family and friends. Sharing stories with your children or siblings and your extended family is one way to honor their lives and the memories you have of them.

Don’t feel pressured to muster up only good memories of them - it’s okay to include the not-so-good and painful memories as well. No one is perfect, and every family goes through their ups and downs. Perhaps they weren’t the best parents to have around, and maybe you weren’t always the model child growing up. All of these experiences are what colored your life and made you into the person you are today.

7. Lingering feelings of loneliness

The death of your parents will sometimes cause an emotional reaction that is so real and long lasting that you might not know how to respond to. You can expect that after a few months following their death you’ll start to feel a lingering loneliness that just won’t go away. These feelings are normal to experience after the death of your parents. You may notice that you feel their absence most around the holidays or your birthday. 

Reaching major life’s milestones may also leave you feeling alone in this world without anyone to share your accomplishments with. You can help offset these feelings by talking to your parents and sharing your life with them even after they’ve died. If you’re spiritual or religious, include them in your prayers every now and then and tell them how you’re doing. You can even ask them to look out for you from wherever they may be in the afterlife.

8. Unresolved conflicts

The seemingly infinite soul searching that results after losing the last of your parents to die may create a feeling of regret in not having tied up any loose ends with your parents. If there were things left unsaid or apologies not made, it can leave you feeling conflicted, sad, and sometimes angry both at yourself and your parents. 

Some therapeutic ways in which you can find closure even after the death of your parents can be the following:

  • Write them a letter expressing all the things you wished you would’ve said while they were still alive.
  • Forgive them for whatever they did or didn’t do that hurt you.
  • Forgive yourself for all the things you might have done for causing them pain during their lifetime. 

9. Doubts regarding life’s purpose

At times you may feel that you’re lacking confidence and direction after the death of your parents. You may also feel that there’s no one to guide you in making the right decisions for your life, your schooling, or career goals. One effect of becoming an orphan is that you’re forced to take charge of your life. 

Many adults find the death of their parents to be freeing. They feel that now they’re able to live their lives as they wish and do the things that they want without fearing their parents disapproval. Take your newfound freedom and explore your life’s purpose once you start to heal from your grief. The death of your parents can set you free to become your truest and deepest self. 

10. Seek professional help when needed

Consider the benefits of online therapy and grief counseling to help you sort through your new life without your parents' presence, guidance, or support.

A grief counselor will help you work out the emotional ups and downs associated with your loss and will help you heal from your grief. 

Can an Adult be an Orphan? 

Having lost your parents at any age will render you parentless, regardless of the textbook definition of the term. When this happens to adults, the pain of losing both parents is no less than losing them at a younger age. Your grief following the death of your parents is real, and matters whether you’re fifteen or fifty.

If you're looking for more help after the death of a parent, read our guides on chronic grief and how to get free grief counseling.

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