Death of a Parent During Adulthood: What to Expect

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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.

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What Happens After You Lose a Parent in Adulthood?

Putting your life back in order after the death of a parent can be a unique challenge as an adult given everything that may be expected of you during this time. Depending on how much responsibility you have over finalizing your parent's affairs, the grieving process is often prolonged for several weeks to months after their death.

Many adult children have to wrap up personal, financial, and legal loose ends that can take weeks. In some instances, there's the execution of the will via probate that needs to occur with the courts. The legal proceedings alone can take anywhere from one year to several years to complete.

While having inevitable distractions may be good for the grieving mind and soul, these same distractions may negatively intervene with the grieving and healing process. Adult children who have to sort through many of these end-of-life issues on their parent's behalf may find it challenging to even begin grieving.

They often wait until after things settle down a bit following their parent's death to figure out how their loss affects them. Having pent-up emotions isn't a healthy way to grieve and may complicate things further down the line. 

Finding healthy ways to grieve when there's so much on your plate can seem impossible. All your responsibilities inevitably take away your time alone with your grief and sabotage your healing process. You may find yourself too busy to process the depth of your loss in the first few weeks, only to find yourself an emotional mess after things start falling back into place.

Your grief can catch you off guard at some of the most inopportune times. To deal with it, you'll have to set some time aside to process how you feel and the consequences of it. Ask yourself what things take precedence and which ones can wait a few weeks or months. 

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. 

Tips for Helping a Loved One After a Loss of Their Parent in Adulthood

Whenever someone you love suffers the death of one or both parents, you can expect them to need your love and support for the first few months after the event. As adults, we often find it difficult to ask others for help while choosing to take on all of life’s responsibilities on our own.

Sometimes things work out fine, and others may cause us to experience anxiety and feeling overwhelmed. You may remember that human suffering causes different reactions in every individual, but ultimately the pain of loss requires healing. Here are a few ways you can help your loved ones get through this challenging time in their lives. 

Be a source of support

Supporting a loved one through loss is more than offering financial support, making a donation, or sending flowers to their home. While all of these gestures matter significantly, your endless love and support are also important.

Your loved ones may remember how you made them feel more than anything you can ever buy for them. Being there for a grieving individual can mean stopping by to check in on them to see how they're holding up, sending a few encouraging texts throughout the day, or taking them out to lunch to allow them to talk about their loss.

Jump in where needed

Losing a parent can be overwhelming to an adult both physically and emotionally. The death of a parent means having to make final arrangements, take care of their home and personal belongings, and other financial or legal responsibilities.

You can expect your loved one to be dealing with making many final decisions on their parent's behalf while executing them all in a short timeframe. Additionally, they may have many other personal responsibilities with their home and family. Consider this an excellent time to roll up your sleeves and help your loved one wherever you're needed. 

Take charge of the smaller tasks

Jumping in to help with the more minor things can include everything from posting social media announcements and keeping people updated on significant dates and times. You can also be a great asset in keeping the extended family informed of any updates, news, and announcements so that no one feels left out or slighted.

As with any family, feelings can get hurt whenever someone thinks that they were skipped over or if they had to hear the news from an online source rather than receiving a direct phone call. Although keeping the family up to date is a relatively small task, it can have a lasting effect on future relationships. 

Calendar significant dates

Keeping a calendar of significant dates and events can help you and your loved one keep track of special days coming up. You’ll be grateful you marked days on the calendar such as birthdays, anniversaries, dates of death, and other important dates so that you can send special reminders, cards, or gifts.

In doing so, you’re not only letting your loved one know that you care and remember, you’re also helping them keep their loved one’s memory alive by honoring the special days connected to them. Consider gifting your loved one a calendar with these dates already marked on it as a memorial gift.

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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