When Our Parents Die

“I feel like an orphan.” “I feel alone.”

These comments are not from children. Rather, these are statements I often hear from adult clients who have had both parents die. Losing one parent is very hard. But the loss of the second parent can be profound. For when you lose the second parent, it symbolizes never being able to go back home again.

So why is it that mature, emotionally balanced, successful adults – many with their own spouses and children – feel this deep void?

The parent-child relationship is unique in that it is the only place where a child can receive unconditional positive regard. This acceptance, love, approval and support we receive from our parents are largely responsible for developing the foundation of self-liking we carry into adulthood.

Children outliving their parents is the natural order of life. Yet losing both parents signifies a not so natural turning point in the lives of adult children. Their view of themselves and their role in the extended family changes radically. The matriarch or patriarch roll is now passed on, resulting in a shift in the family structure, and traditions, such as family gatherings at the parents’ home, are gone.

Despite the seriousness of these losses, support from colleagues, community and friends can be limited. This is in part due to the fact that parental deaths are anticipated. If parents have been experiencing medical problems, or are very old, their deaths may even be predicted. Parents are living longer; well into their 80’s and 90’s, which means that their adult children are in late middle age by the time the second parent has died. Late middle age is a time during which the adult children become more conscious of their own mortality. Because of these issues, it is not uncommon for grieving adult children to exhibit difficulties with cognition, sleep, increased irritability, or develop somatic complaints following their parent’s deaths. Yet, if they mourn beyond the comfort period allotted by their religious and support groups, they may be viewed as emotionally weak or seeking secondary gains, and further emotional support is withheld.

Gender differences exist in incorporating parental loss. Women are comfortable getting together to obtain support during a period of loss; they reach out to others to sit and talk about their feelings, receiving much needed emotional support. Men, on the other hand, culturally do not share their feelings with others. As such, they tend to be at greater risk for being more emotionally isolated during grieving periods.

Grieving for our parents is necessary; not something we should fear. It gives us time to accept our losses, be able to think of them without overwhelming pain, and to reassess our own personal goals. Anticipatory grieving, the process of grieving a loved one such as an ailing parent while still alive, does not reduce the intensity of emotions felt when the parent finally dies. Instead, adult children must work through the permanent loss of their parents and move forward at a pace that is unique to their own needs.

Eileen Lenson