Death of a Parent During Adulthood: What to Expect

Updated

While it is natural to assume that we can expect to lose both our parents in our lifetime, it's often a burden few can manage without support when it happens. The finality of it all is almost unreal, especially when it happens to someone whose presence in your life has been a constant source of support. 

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While the death of a parent during adulthood may invoke feelings of sympathy and compassion from other family members and friends, there's often a sense of devastation in the knowledge that life will never be the same without them. Their death can cause feelings of confused grief — especially as an adult. There is the expectation that others will continue to depend on you while you look for support to try and cope with your grief. 

The loss of a parent's guidance, love, and support may leave you feeling a profound sense of emptiness that may be difficult to heal. 

How Does Losing a Parent in Adulthood Change You or Your Life?

The loss of either or both of your parents is a wholly transformative event. Nothing will ever be the same.

You might even be questioning your mortality now that you've experienced this loss. It's natural to feel and think that your own time is up, and it is also perfectly natural to have feelings of grief and abandonment. The important thing is to allow yourself to grieve appropriately in whatever way works for you and learn to move forward with your own life. Many people have complicated relationships with parents, and the loss can evoke various scenarios to expect. Here are a few to consider:

1. I’ve lost my first parent

Losing your first parent can come with the most extraordinary overwhelming sense of loss that many have felt in their life up to that point. For most, it is the first realization that there will forever be a void from this point of having lost one of the only two people that have been in your life literally from the first moment.

Allow yourself to grieve despite the need to be strong and supportive toward others experiencing the same loss. Your heart will be aching, and most of your loved ones around you will also be feeling your pain. Giving your heart the opportunity to overrule your head here will only help your healing in the long run.

Progressing through grief at your own pace can help you support others needing your shoulder at some point during their grief. Allowing a natural outpouring of emotions can prove to be therapeutic for anyone suffering through grief.

2. Both my parents are gone

Despite the kind of relationship you had with both of your parents as a child and as an adult, no one's ever really prepared for being orphaned. Some people can find this traumatizing and difficult to live with for years to come and will need help and support to cope, especially when your last parent dies. Others may question their mortality and look to create better relationships with their children and those around them to feel better about their sense of loss.

Again, it is vitally important to allow yourself to grieve as this will enable you to carry on as your parents would have wanted you to. You'll need to feel capable of taking care of the end-of-life issues now that you've lost both parents. Understanding your grief will help you tie up any loose ends before moving forward yourself.

3. I’ve lost my estranged parent

A parent's death is generally difficult to deal with when you've had a good relationship with them. But with the death of an estranged parent, it can be challenging to know how to feel. Some people feel nothing and do not need to be involved in the grieving process for that parent. Others may feel a sense of anger and resentment at the knowledge that unresolved issues or conflicts will now remain that way for their lifetime. 

These feelings can manifest as anger or anxiety even years after their death. Acknowledging their death and any lingering resentments toward them will help you inch your way closer to healing.

4. Sudden or accidental death of a parent

While in an abstract sense, we understand that a parent's death is inevitable, the sudden death of a parent can create added loss and grief. Psychological issues also arise when an unexpected death occurs, such as with a sudden illness or a traumatic accident. 

Denial and anger may prolong grief in individuals who've lost a parent too soon, without warning, or without the opportunity to say a final goodbye.

Without proper treatment of prolonged grief symptoms, you risk falling into a chronic depression leading to major depressive disorder. Losing a parent in your 20s, for example, can allow for complicated grief to settle in, in part because of feelings that the needed love and support of a parent was cut short. 

5. Being the support person

While many people experience the loss of a parent as adults, many are also parents themselves at the time. While dealing with their grief, a parent needs to be available to support their children who've just lost a grandparent. It's important to normalize the grieving process by allowing the child to show their emotions and talk about the person who died.

Encouraging a child to remember and speak about their grandparents will reduce anxiety and keep their grandparents in their memory. Children learn to grieve from the examples set by the adults around them. Fostering the open display of emotions will help a child understand that grieving is a normal part of loss.

ยป MORE: After a loss, make sure everyone's on the same page with Cake's post loss tool.

 

Tips for Dealing With Losing a Parent in Adulthood

Death is a natural part of life and will be one of the most emotionally challenging experiences you may ever go through. Even when a sick parent's death appears inevitable, it’s difficult to ever prepare for the finality of it. Perhaps it's because we all still see ourselves as children until we lose our parents, no matter how old we are. The following tips will help you deal with losing a parent in your 30s or at any age.  

Your grief is natural and necessary

How to appropriately grieve for a parent who's died is something that's entirely personal and solicits many different opinions and reactions. There's never a right or wrong way to grieve the loss of a parent.

In his book When Parents Die: A Guide For Adults, Edward Meyers states, "The 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 others. The message is that grief for a dead parent isn't entirely appropriate."

Grief is never entirely over

Grieve at your own pace. Don't impose a timeline on yourself to get over your grief. Your parent is deceased and is no longer able to actively support you. As a result, your grief is never entirely over. You'll learn to manage it throughout the remainder of your life. Your grief process will be different from everyone else's.

Base your grief on the relationship you had with your parent, your personal experiences with them, and on what feels right for you. In time, the pain of your loss will lessen, and you'll learn to live your life in your new normal.

Remember your parent

Your parent may be gone, but their love and memory will forever be with you. They'll always be a considerable part of your life no matter where you are or what you're doing. They are the key to your past and will forever guide your future by way of the life lessons they instilled in you.

Set aside time to remember them and to be alone with your pain and sorrow. Share happy memories with your loved ones so that they too can share in your experiences. All of this will be a significant part of your healing process. It may take a few years to move through the stages of grief on your way to healing from your loss. Mourning your parent's death is all a normal part of grieving.

Seek support

No one expects you to go through this traumatic event alone. If you are struggling, get some help. Talk to family or friends, seek out a counselor, read about how others have handled similar grief to help you find your path to healing. There is no shame in asking for help. There's courage in recognizing that you may need help in healing from your pain.

Grief, however, is personal, and allowing yourself to grieve is entirely natural. Crying is a natural human response after a loss. Allow your emotions to surface and give you release. Talk to a family member, a friend, or a professional counselor to help support you as you mourn your loss. Finding an outlet for your grief is part of a healthy healing process. 

Losing a Parent During Adulthood

The loss of a parent is one of the most emotionally exhausting experiences many of us will ever have. Despite it being natural to expect that you'll lose at least one of your parents in your lifetime, it is never an easy process. Many people find it incredibly difficult to bounce back from this type of loss.

Parents are often the first relationships we ever form a lasting bond with. Dealing with a parent's death during adulthood, while painful, is an expected part of life and a loss that you'll learn to live with as the years go.


Sources

  1. Myers, Edward. “When Parents Die: A Guide For Adults.” Penguin Books, 1997.

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