Grieving the Loss of a Parent

The death of a parent is the most common form of bereavement for adults. Grieving the loss of a parent is something we should be prepared for, because it is inevitable and part of the natural order of life. Sadly, we are never really ready to face this painful moment.

Unlike losing a spouse, losing a parent does not result in the loss of primary companionship and identity. The death of an aged parent is usually less threatening and less shocking to us compared to the death of a sibling (something we may not expect), and arguably less so than the loss of a child.

However, the death of a parent has a profound impact on the rest of your life. Your role as an “adult child” in relationship to the parent determines the nature of your grief, and no one else can define this for you. In fact, it can be unexpectedly shattering and can affect all aspects of your life.

There is a major difference between losing your parent when you’re in your twenties and losing them when you’re in your seventies. The quality and stage of the parent-child relationship, how you were involved in each other’s lives, will influence your grief. The magnitude of this loss can take you by surprise.

What You’ll Experience when Grieving a Parent’s Death

You may not feel ‘ready’
Even if the parent has been ill and the death is expected, we are usually not ready for the finality of their passing. Your friends and colleagues that haven’t experienced the death of a parent may become impatient when you don’t just “bounce back” to normal in a few weeks. On the contrary, the death of a parent can be emotionally devastating, whether you had a good relationship with that parent, or, if you haven’t been close (sometimes this makes grieving more difficult because of unresolved issues).

You’ll need to focus on self-care
Grieving the loss of a parent, like all grief, can be exhausting emotionally, physically and spiritually. You’ll have to learn to take care of yourself and ask for emotional support.

You may feel impatient with yourself and grief
Grieving takes as long as it takes. There is no right way, nor is there a right amount of time to grieve. Grief is not linear. You may feel acute grief for a few weeks or months, then start feeling a little better, until you are surprised when it hits you again, full force, as if the death had just occurred.

You may have confusing feelings to work through
If your parent had dementia, was ill or in pain, it may seem a relief when they die, but that is little consolation. Well-meaning people may even say “It’s for the best”, but death, no matter the circumstance, is never “for the best”. The “best” would be that your parent is still alive.

Even if your parent was ill or suffering, you will grieve. You may be surprised at feelings of abandonment and vulnerability. When your parents die, a buffer between you and death is gone. You become the next generation in line and your own mortality may come into sharp focus, maybe for the first time.

You’ll enter a new stage of life
The death of a parent means that you enter a new stage of life, one that at first may make you feel vulnerable at the same time as you are grieving. You may feel emotionally regressed and childish, which are normal response to the death of a parent, regardless of your age.

If you lose both parents, you recognize that you are, essentially, orphaned. A tether between you and your parents is permanently severed. Never before have you been in the world without at least one of these two important people around. Unconditional love and understanding, emotional support, a sense of security and safety, companionship and connection are just some of the things we all lose when a parent dies.

How to Help Yourself When Grieving the Loss of a Parent

  • If you feel the need, seek out support from others who’ve been there, a friend who cares, or a professional who can help guide you through the work of grief. Read our article “The Grieving Process” for tips and ideas to help you overcome grief.

  • Honor your parent’s memory. Remembering your parents and sharing your experience of them is often therapeutic. Whether you have a formal memorial or informal gathering of friends and family, sharing stories, memories, and grief, can ease the pain, provide you the support you need, and make you feel less alone.

    You can also honor their memory permanently, by creating an obituary at an online memorial site. Memorial websites, such as Memorial Post, often offer both free and paid versions of online memorials.

  • View “Dearly Loved. Dealing with the Death of a Parent”. The video features the experiences of four adult children who have grieved the loss of a parent, what helped them, and how they honor their parent’s memory.