A child at any age who has lost their parents can likely feel pain and suffering. When your last parent dies, it can be especially traumatizing. Some adult children may find it difficult to adjust to being orphaned. And for some, it can be a relief if they've been a caregiver to their parents for many years. They may celebrate their newfound freedom from those responsibilities and exhibit a new lease on life following the death of the last parent.
The way a person suffers the loss of a parent will likely be affected by the relationship they had with them at the time of death. Children who were especially close to their parents tend to suffer a significant loss.
While those who were estranged from them might not be affected by their death at all. But sometimes, they may suffer even more so because of the lost opportunity to reconcile. If you’re unsure about what happens after your last parent dies, here are some things to consider as you move through your grief.
1. Allow Yourself to Grieve
When your last parent dies, you may think that you'll be prepared for it when the time comes. What you may not know is that there are many types of grief that you may not have known existed.
When you suffer the death of one parent, and the other’s still alive, you may be mentally and emotionally preparing yourself for when the last parent dies. But what may blindside you is how you’ll feel when the reality sets in that you’ve been left orphaned.
The things that most people can't prepare for are the way that they'll react to the compounded grief brought about when the last parent dies. Although it may seem as if the pain and suffering felt will be the same or similar, compounded grief is a bit unpredictable. It can wreak havoc on your emotions, your body, and your immune system. It's important to seek help if you’re unable to cope with your grief in healthy ways that show progress over time.
Some of the signs to look for are:
- Intense pain and sorrow
- Being consumed by details of your parents’ death
- Focusing on reminders of their death
- Avoiding everything that reminds you of their death
- Intense longing
- Feeling numb and detached from others and reality
- Feeling angry and bitter
- Losing hope
- Distrusting others
- Inability to move forward with life
- Inability to function in daily life
- Isolating yourself from others
- Feeling depressed, sad, or guilty
- Wishing you died instead of your loved one
2. Take Care of End-of-Life Issues
Do you know what to do when someone dies? Taking care of end-of-life issues can mean anything from making sure that all loose ends are tied and to overseeing the estate and that it has been distributed according to your parents' wishes.
If your last parent died without an end-of-life plan in place, you might have to make many of those decisions for them. It may be that you had detailed conversations with them about how they would like their death to go, or it may be that you'll have to figure it all out as you go along.
If you were relying on your parents to make all the final arrangements, and you later find out that they didn't, it may be hard for you to figure everything out. For example, it may be especially hard to hear that your dad died without having made these plans when everyone was relying on him to do so. You might feel a bit of anger and resentment toward your parents for leaving you to make these decisions.
Seek the advice of an attorney in deciding what next steps to take. Some typical things that you'll need to decide on are:
- Notifying next of kin
- Planning and paying for the funeral or cremation services
- Disposing of their personal belongings
- Distribution of estate assets and other things of value
- Wrapping up their personal and financial lives
- Shutting down social media accounts
- Closing open lines of credit and credit card accounts
- Transferring mortgages and vehicle titles
- Paying off outstanding debt
- Paying off hospital bills
3. Plan a Memorial
A memorial service is a way to honor the life of your loved one who's died. When your last parent dies, it's not unusual to have a joint memorial service honoring the lives of both your parents, especially if they were still married at the time of death. Celebrating and honoring their lives together through a joint memorial service is a beautiful way of bringing closure to their deaths.
Memorial services can be celebrated anywhere you're allowed to gather. When preparing to have a memorial service, consider what to say when someone dies well in advance by preparing a short eulogy or meaningful poem. Some of the more common places to have a gathering in remembrance of a loved one are:
- Favorite restaurant
However, in times of social distancing and uncertainty, it has become popular to host drive-up memorial services, online video memorial services through applications such as Zoom or Whatsapp.
4. Take Time for Self-Care
Taking care of yourself is always important, and even more so when you've suffered a significant loss. Coping with your grief and dealing with all the end-of-life issues that come up when your loved one dies can leave you emotionally and physically drained.
Self-care includes taking the needed rest to recover from a long or particularly stressful day, finding the time to exercise, and eating properly. It's normal to put aside doing these things for yourself when you're grieving the loss of your parents.
But try to maintain your normal routine as close as possible to avoid any burnout. In the first few days, you can expect your grief to overrun all normalcy in your life, but after about the third or fourth day, you should begin to feel yourself able to breathe again.
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5. Take Inventory
Make a list of all the things that need to get done. You'll want to include everything that you can think of, including brushing your teeth. This isn't an exercise to see how busy you can keep yourself, but a way to maintain your routines during the first few days after suffering the death of your parent.
Take inventory of all the things that need to be done. You'll want to include on your list the things needing to be done to plan for the funeral and to tie up any remaining loose ends. Having a list will make it easy to see what you need help with and where others can lend their support.
6. Take a Trip
After all is said and done and you've wrapped up with all of the funeral planning and memorial services, consider taking a trip. This can serve as a getaway to destress from any chaos surrounding the death of your parent. You can also plan your getaway to coincide with the spreading of ashes or cremated remains.
A short trip can be very therapeutic when trying to cope with your grief and sorrow. You can plan to go alone, or invite a loved one to come along for the journey and to keep you company.
7. Purchase a Memorial Stone
A way to honor your parents after the last parent's death is to purchase a memorial stone to place as a grave marker for their place of final interment. Headstones are often made of granite and are used to mark the gravesite with basic information such as name, date of birth, and date of death.
When purchasing a joint headstone, there's usually room to add pictures of your deceased loved ones, a short poem or quotation, and the relationship to one another.
9. Buy Flowers
Flowers are a traditional sympathy gift to give to the bereaved. You can purchase flowers for yourself or to gift in remembrance of your parents to mark special occasions such as holidays, anniversaries, or other significant days that have special meaning to you.
The more traditional flowers to gift are chrysanthemums, lilies, gladioli, carnations, and roses. If you’re purchasing flowers well after the funeral, it's more common to purchase small bouquets to leave at the graveside. The larger wreaths and flower sprays are traditionally gifted at the time of the funeral or memorial service immediately following the death.
10. Take Time Off
It's important to your emotional, physical, and psychological well-being to take time off of work or other responsibilities after suffering the loss of your parent.
Most employers offer some type of bereavement leave that allows you to take up to three days of paid leave from work to make funeral arrangements, attend to your family's needs after suffering a death, and to give you time and space to cope with your grief.
Not everyone is entitled to bereavement leave. There's no law in place that says an employer must give you this time off, or to pay you for your lost wages if they do offer it. Talk with your employer's human resources department to see what's available to you and to discuss your options.
Grieving the Death of Your Last Parent
When you lose your last parent, your life is sure to change in many ways. Some ways are to be expected and some will take you by surprise.
In time, you’ll learn to cope with your losses and find new meaning to your life that’ll allow you to move forward and heal from your pain.