6 Reasons a Parent's Death Is a Special Kind of Loss

sharing a tissue

The death of a mother or father can strike an adult child unexpectedly hard. Parent death brings a unique kind of grieving, whether you've been a hands-on caregiver and helper at the end of life or your parent has been living independently and well. The break in the parent-child bond can reverberate for the rest of your life.

Here are six factors that grief experts say can shape grieving over a parent's death:

1. Our parents are our "wisdom keepers." "We spend a lifetime looking to our parents for answers," says psychotherapist Sherry E. Showalter, author of Healing Heartaches: Stories of Loss and Life. They're the repositories of knowledge about our history, our upbringing, family traditions, the names of all those faces in old photos. With their passing so, too, goes the information and insight that hasn't already been transmitted or recorded.

2. Unresolved issues often follow the parent-child relationship into adulthood. The balance of the parent-child relationship shifts several times, first as we gain maturity and create our own families, and then as parents grow older and often need our support. These realities bring plenty of opportunities for misunderstanding or discord. And not all these bumps are smoothed out by the end. Differences that go unreconciled can leave a forlorn sense of unfinished business, Showalter says.

3. Parent death always feels sudden -- even when it's not. People often expect that the death of someone older or someone who's been ill for a long time will feel easier to endure because it's predictable. Yet the disappearance from your life of a figure you've known since birth is, when it finally happens, always a sudden change.

4. Decisions about rituals are up to you. "Suddenly you're the adult preparing the funeral, the viewing, the obituary, the eulogy -- there's nobody older to tell you how to manage, no one to correct you or say, 'No, that's not how you do it!'" says one woman in her 40s who lost both parents within two years. "I felt pushed to a different level of adulthood."

5. Your children lose grandparents. Many people who lose their parents talk about "grieving for what won't ever be" -- being unable to ask their parents for parenting advice, for example, or having their parents attend their children's birthday parties, graduations, and weddings. Parents may also need to help their children mourn, or they may feel a need to preserve the grandparents' legacy for their children.

6. Losing the "buffer generation" forces us to reexamine our own mortality. When a grandparent dies, there's still a whole generation between you and death. With a parent's death, your own eventual demise may feel uncomfortably nearer.


Paula Spencer Scott

Paula Spencer Scott is the author of Surviving Alzheimer's: Practical Tips and Soul-Saving Wisdom for Caregivers and much of the Alzheimer's and caregiving content on Caring. See full bio


3 days ago, said...

I have been date a man with a daughter (6 years old). She has been having behaviors. She loss her mother a 2 1/2 years old. He said he has not been in a relationship with a women until me. I treat her just like she is my own daughter, but she is is starting to act like she is the adult, I spoke to the father and he spanked her and put her on punishment, on yesterday she got in a bit of trouble with me, as I was talking to her she made a statement " you are the cause of me getting in trouble". I was shock about the statement, so I just said that I would blow it off. We all went out to the movies and she began to act like an adult and the father didn't say or do anything about this. So I left and came home mad as you know what, I just don't know how to help or what to do. Please help me I really like this man and his daughter.


9 days ago, said...

I lost my mom to cancer June 23, 2017. She got diagnosed with colon cancer a year after my pops got diagnosed with kidney cancer. My dad is still alive and my mom quit her job to take care of my dad. My father's medication is no longer working after years of taking it. He now has to use the same chemo that I feel ruined my mother's life. It has not been yet 2 months my mother's passed and now I fear that my father will soon succumbed to the same fate. I am very heart broken, my whole family is. Very hard to deal with and wish more alternative medicines were researched and available. I have many friends who's parents past from cancer. All took chemo. Chemo just does not work and seems to just ruin their lives.


10 days ago, said...

Amy- please contact me. I would love to just listen. I lost my mom on March 17, 2017.


about 1 month ago, said...

Hang in there Amy - seeing a therapist is helpful. I lost my dad 13 years ago, my younger sister seven years ago and my mom three years ago and I still grieve for all of them. Talking about it helps and I'm sorry your fiance isn't a person you can to talk to about it. A therapist will help you express your grief.


about 1 month ago, said...

Hi my name is Amy. I lost my mom in march 7th 2017. I am the only child they had. I miss her so much everyday. I don't even feel like living anymore. I loved her with all my heart. She was my rock and soul. We did everything together. I don't like to do anything any more. I am so depressed. I have no friends. I have family. I don't have a dad. I mean he alive but I never talk to him. My fiancé just yelles at me when I start to cry for my mom or even start talking about her. I don't have anyone to talk to about my mom. I feel like I want to be with her. But I know she want me to have the best life down hear.


about 1 month ago, said...

I miss my mum every single day - it tears me apart that I have lost her - my brother seems relieved - I find this so odd - my dad has also passed - I feel like nothing feels real - my partner left me before my dad passed - I feel so alone - I have turned to pets as so much more loyal than boyfriends


4 months ago, said...

Lilcoz2048, Takes a lot of strength to reminiscence. My household had a lot of tension and stress that pushed down most of my grieving for my mom. Now, that my dad is gone, neighbors or friends company is useless because my parents were my life. Writing this to you will not make it better. I ask for God's help and wonder according to his word, the duration to grieve.Scripture put the past behind us but, with emotions God gave us with that parent child bond, how does one do that when all that person has is the grieving that gives a sense of them being here. Sorry for venting. .


4 months ago, said...

michaelcarvalho Thank you for the kind words, it's been a little over a month closer to two months since I lost my Best Friend My pops.. Today was the first day that there was a toy show ( Which we always did together... It was a very bitter sweet feeling.. A lot of friends there for support and remembering him... And of course a lot of toys... My mom is the type that loves pictures and we have spent hours in the last few weeks looking at them as a family, it's hard a lot of great memory's but great cause I Have also learned more about my dad


4 months ago, said...

LydiaRT, a double blow to experience. How did you do it because I would not make it? I gather, you must have had great support.


4 months ago, said...

EmrElsa losing your dad and experiencing the grieving is overwhelming. How some people move on could be, they were not close to their parents because they had their own issues, raised by someone else, their parents were not pleasant. These are people I know of with parental experience and have no emotional understanding for my loss on 1-2-17. Those people never grieved or understand that people grieve differently.


4 months ago, said...

michaelcarvalho I am with you. it has been almost a year since mom passed away. and my grief is still there. peppered with 'what if's' and should have, could have's I am amazed and saddened how easily many just move on quickly after they lose an elderly parent. I have not been able to do so. I miss her as much as ever or maybe more. in my mind I say what if....what if she were still here? my moms ending was tragic. a simple uti turned sepsis. she had collapsed and ignored by a neighbor when she wanted help. sad because my mom was a compassionate woman. I feel she was just wronged. a stroke leaving her with no voice for nearly 20 years till she passed. she was doing fairly good till she was about to turn 81. and it all faded so fast. I have distanced myself from nearly everyone. I am very hurt and feel life and the health care system let my mom down. its so disappoinitng


4 months ago, said...

Lilcoz2048, sorry for your loss. Cling to your mom. You are her iron staff. Hope you have others who support you and her emotions. You may not feel fortunate but, you have one parent remaining which is a blessing. Is she the type who wants to walk down memory lane and look at pictures? If so, she is a strong woman.


4 months ago, said...

Lost my dad 1-2-2017. Basically, alone without support. Most people avoid me because I speak my mind when they feel things are better in some way but they don't realize, I was his caregiver from hospital causing his dementia condition and bed ridden for months till I brought him back to a functioning state at home then malignant tumor and moron doctors and hospice saying he was dying, according to conventional methods. Daily tears like Niagara falls and continuous what if's. He was very supportive when mom died. Over forty years same home with him. Seems, adult children are meant to accept their loss better than others but others fail to realize we are born with the same emotions. We are not robots


4 months ago, said...

How does some moms die