Death or Loss of a Parent

The death or loss of a parent should not be underestimated, even if they are in old age and the child is an adult. The loss of a source of loving support, even if expected, can be devastating. Alternately, if a parent is suffering, death may be a source of relief. If the parent is estranged, their death may be met with little or no feeling at all—and that can in turn inspire guilt or confusion. A young child experiencing the death or loss of a parent may go through profound emotional turmoil, with bouts of feeling overwhelmed, sad, depressed, pressured to take on new responsibilities, isolated, and angry, while someone experiencing the loss of a parent while a young adult may feel adrift or isolated from their peers. At any age, there may be legal, financial, or practical impacts that add stress and complicate the grieving process. Self-compassion and professional support can be two key features of working through this difficult time.

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An Introduction to the Death or Loss of a Parent

“You will lose someone you can’t live without, and your heart will be badly broken, and the bad news is that you never completely get over the loss of your beloved. But this is also the good news. They live forever in your broken heart that doesn’t seal back up.” —Anne Lamott

Why is the death of a parent so hard?

For most of us, our parents serve as elements of safety and stability, a constant amidst the flux of everyday life. When they die, we lose a tangible piece of that security, which can leave us feeling extremely off balance—even if we knew it was coming due to a long-term illness or extreme old age.

For those whose parents were not positive or stable figures in their lives, losing them can still be difficult. Estranged or not, our parents represent an external portion of our personal identity, the framework in which we first interact with the world around us. Losing them means we have to figure out who we are outside of that framework, which inevitably brings up complex emotions. Often the death of a parent can initiate a sort of identity crisis, as we come to terms with all the lessons we learned from them, how they affected our worldview, and what parts of that we want to take forward with us. This is true for everyone, even for those who were on good terms with their parent.

How do I cope with the death of my parent?

One of the most important things to remember when you’ve just lost a parent is that grief can show up in a myriad of ways, creeping up where and when you’d never expect to find it. Be patient with yourself; however your grief may show up—sadness, anxiety, depression, and physical symptoms are all common—do your best to accept that it’s there and find ways to be gentle with yourself as you figure out how to move through it in your everyday life. The experience of grief is natural and important, something that every human being encounters at some point. While it cannot be escaped, it can be experienced with love and carried as a part of the human condition we all share.

Since grief is such a personal experience, there is no set way for you to handle it. Some people gain comfort from talking with close family and friends or with a therapist; others prefer to grieve more privately, choosing to journal their feelings or express themselves through music, poetry, or art. Keeping yourself busy can be helpful, so long as you don’t use busyness as a crutch to avoid processing your loss. Familiar activities that you find meaningful or enjoyable, or trying something new like taking up a new hobby or volunteering, can help to both sustain you and create new meaning in your life. 

Will I always feel this much grief?

Grief is not a static thing; it ebbs and flows, evolving as we evolve. While most people feel a very deep, acute grief in the wake of losing a parent, it typically does fade somewhat over time—though it often still pops up at odd times, even decades after the loss. Encountering other difficulties such as physical illness, depression, or another devastating loss may trigger a resurgence of the original grief, which can be difficult to handle. In those situations, don’t be afraid to seek out the support of loved ones or a professional—without shaming yourself or thinking you should be “over it” by now. No one ever truly “gets over” losing someone like a parent, though it does usually become easier to handle eventually.

Hard as it may seem to believe, some people even find that good things can grow out of the loss of their parent. For instance, you may discover that you feel free to do things that you wouldn’t normally have been comfortable doing because of your parent’s expectations, or you may learn how to function much more independently than you might have otherwise. Discoveries like these won’t necessarily lessen your grief, but they can provide a sense of meaning and depth to the experience as well as a positive context for moving forward with it.

How can I help a child dealing with the death of their parent?

One of the best things to do for a child is to listen to them about what they’re feeling and how their loss is affecting them. It’s also extremely important to provide them with as much stability as possible, keeping close to their usual routine while letting them know that you’re there for a hug or to talk whenever they need it. Answer any questions they might have, and reassure them that it was not their fault that their parent died. Help them to find a way to remember their parent, perhaps by making a memory box or photo album. Many cultures also have rituals for the honoring of ancestors, which can help to keep a child connected to their lost loved one. Understand that this experience will continue to affect them as they grow up, and help them to adapt their coping strategies as they get older.

What do you say when someone’s parent dies?

It can be hard to know what to say to someone who has lost their parent. Sometimes that’s honestly the best thing to do: acknowledge that you don’t know what to say, but that you are there to listen or to just be with the person if they would like. If you knew the deceased, sharing a fond memory of them can be a very good way to celebrate their life and their impact. Unless you are very familiar with the religious views of the grieving person, it’s best not to offer any condolences like “They’ve gone to a better place” or “They’re with God now.” If you would like to offer help to someone, come up with specific, concrete actions like bringing over food next Tuesday, watching their children for an evening, or arranging to call in a week to check on them.

You Might Also Like Our Content on These Topics: Grief, Talk Therapy, Death or Loss of Partner or Spouse, Honoring Ancestors

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The information offered here is not a substitute for professional advice. Please proceed with care and caution.