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.


2 days ago, said...

to the commenter that recently lost his father, My father was 45 when I was born and I was 24 when he passed away. I feel that loss too. so many years that have been missed. my mother passed away suddenly from septic shock on May 24th. it has been crushing for me. she had a massive stroke in 1997 when she was 63. there has always been interaction between us despite the fact she lost her speech then. she was a large part of my life that she was still here. I was not prepared and now I feel lost and more alone than ever. I am deeply depressed, feel guilt and confusion. the would have, could have, should haves are tormenting and missing her presence is heartbreaking.


19 days ago, said...

My Father was 45 when I was born, so growing up I realized I would be fairly young when he passed. I thought I would be prepared. Just lost him Tuesday the 9th and I'm extremely lost without him.


20 days ago, said...

Lisatill I know the feeling - like you I don't know how to "go on" or get past it either. Yes the getting physically sick part is something I fully understand. I think it's just depression and now a year later I still struggle with it - I don't remember not being in a "happy place" before or not "getting over" a situation. I hope you have a good support system. My child is the reason I keep pushing myself. Like you I am happy that your children survived the horrific accident that took your mother. People say it will get better I hope it gets better for you. I will keep you in my prayers as you struggle to overcome this sadness. You are not alone.


20 days ago, said...

I lost my father January 15th 2016 from kidney failure. He wasn't well for a while as he had several health issues, but his loss was devastating. Then on June 16th I lost my mother, very suddenly. She was in a car accident with my 2 children in the car., ages 11 and 7. My children are okay, just had scrapes and bruises. It's a miracle but I am devastated. Both losses within 5 months is overwhelming and I am having such a hard time. I know grief must take its course, but I can't see the light. I feel worse everyday. The stress of the grief is exhausting and I feel it's making me sick. There are many details of my mothers accident that haunt me. I saw her car on the way to the hospital. It was on the local news with the picture of the wreck. I can't get the images out of my mind. Devastated that my mother died, but also thankful that my children are fine.


about 1 month ago, said...

For the person who lost his father to a massive stroke and is still struggling as to how to deal with his loss especially after his best friends have died, his family seems incapable of providing support and he feels he has no resources fo new companionship. I found at a time of extreme loss when I also felt I had nowhere to turn that meditation of the type Buddhists do help me find a quiet place in myself where I could still all of the confusing thoughts and feelings that tied me in knots and where I could learn to let go and accept the losses that I could not change. I still went through times of deep depression, sadness and anxiety but the lessons I learned of taking a deep breath whenever sadness and loss seems overwhelming and saying 'let it go' still helps everyday. It helps me to realize that I still have to live with terrible loss that I cannot change but that I need to allow myself to be happy for what I do have. I would also recommend that you be willing to try whatever it takes for you to achieve a happier acceptance of your loss and not be bound by Church rules or other doctrines even those of your inner mind that may limit your chances. Reading a book by the Dali Lama called Happiness was very helpful to me and it may help you to think compassionately of your family instead of completely as self-absorbed idiots but rather with realization that most of us stumble through our lives with very little self-awareness or awareness of others. I understand that it is difficult in your situation to make new contacts but being alone with your sadness and depression is self-fulfilling in that you are more likely to continue to be depressed and withdrawing into yourself including going to bed early with your insomnia is a sure sign of that. I would recommend that you look for a psychologist for counseling that's that's a person who is trained to have empathy and to help people who are struggling as you are. I think if you can learn to accept your loss as well as you can you might find yourself in a better condition to meet others even if it is starting online.


about 1 month ago, said...

A parent's death never competently heals-so much undone and regrets. We never learn until it's too late.


about 1 month ago, said...

I don't know if anyone will read this but I just need to get it out. My dad passed away a year ago -- I'm not sure if I had a chance to grieve that loss. I worry about him all the time. I wonder if he was ok in his last hours of life. He had a sudden massive stroke - was on life support until we could all get there and just went out like a light.once taken off the ventilator. I held his hand but said nothing because my family appeared to have lost it's mind Everybody was only concerned with themselves - seems no one considered what my dad was to the family or what his wishes were. I guess i was already numb having just lost my best friend of over 20 years 2 months previous to my dad's passing. Every day I find myself worrying about my dad. I try hard to forget him and when I remember him I try to turn off the memory of him lying there actively dying and the family acting like a bunch of idiots. I had plans but they are left undone - I think to myself maybe I should just go on that vacation my girlfriend and I had planned or just have another party for my dad. Those were my plans - then late last year I lost my other good friend to a long illness. I don't have anybody to talk to - I'm not even sure what I would say. If I call one of my family members it turns out to be all about them and I just get lost in the conversation. I have done all this research on when I should move past this and when I should go find some help. I don't even know what the answer it. I don't think I feel sorry for myself. I take care of my family - I go to work daily and I function but I did notice I go to bed early every day - even though i have had insomnia for years. I don't sleep well at night. I'm friendless but at this stage of my life where do I find new friends. I don't work outside the home. I live in a town unfamiliar to me. I have never been the bar scene or the club type. My church is very small, I'm not even sure if I want a new friend. I'm lonely for my dad and my best friend. I just want my yesterday back but I'm smart enough to know neither are coming back. I thought about going to see a psychic but then I am not sure if that is against the church doctrine. I don't want to sit around and wait to die - my dad would say I had gone crazy - my best friend would never have wanted that for me. It is well with my soul but why do I feel so empty and so lost. How long will this last. How do i get out of this.


2 months ago, said...

My dad died 8 months ago. He was very very ill for about 12 years. His death was hard. He was in hospice actively dying for 27 days. We went and stayed with him every day until he died. I was so tired. Kind of shocked. Then 8 weeks later I had a massive heart attack. That was six months ago. Some days I just feel sad.


2 months ago, said...

I'll never be able to wrap my head around how my mother died on March 14, 2016, sixteen years to the day that my father died on March 14, 2000


2 months ago, said...

Just reading through this as today is fathers day and I feel so so sad not having my dad with me


3 months ago, said...

I lost my dad on Feb of this year...we did chemo together and I went into remission so did he but then he got his cancer again...he passed away...I am,so upset I cry constant I just feel part of my heart is gone..I can't get past this I am,seeking help but I can't even sleep now...will I ever get ok...I am,still on chemo and it is taking a,bad toll on me...please somebody help me with this I am,so lost he was my hero.


3 months ago, said...

My Father past away last October 15 at the age of 70 his main vein valve busted near his liver and my family is still grieving for him for me there is times I can't took at his pictures and I turn away and my heart hurts when I think about him.


5 months ago, said...

I feel all your pain! Our Moms are our first best friends and if you are as lucky as I was to have her for over 50 years our moms become our confident in our later years. The secret keeper and the path finder when we get a bit lost. I was so hurt and grieving my mom when suddenly my brother passed 13 months to the day we buried mom. He was my strength my guide through our loss. I miss them both dearly..so dearly. I cared for mom daily for 14 years through illness...never enough time..never! I listen to a song over and over..it is called 'dancing in sky' by Danni and lizzy..it kinda helps because I am sure they are. Loss is so hard I truly believe you NEVER get over it you just learn to except it. My new saying I say over and over..it is what it is..can't do chet about it. I can't wait to go to bed and lay my head down at night. Those brief moments you wake and think it was a bad dream don't happen anymore. I don't think it has anything to do with my own mortality because I already feel half dead.more of my family is in heaven than here. I will find my way..it is just hard without my path finders. It's new to me. God bless all of you...we will be okay we just love with all we have...that's why we are here looking for answers. Peace one day will find all,of us


7 months ago, said...

It will be 10 years on April 6 of this year will that my mom has been gone. I was 15 and an only child and I didn't know my dad. I lost my mom to a sudden heart attack while we were on the highway. It was my grandmothers birthday(my moms mom). Even after all this time I still break down as if it happened yesterday it still really hurts.


8 months ago, said...

I lost my mother to ALZ less than a month ago. It was a decade-long deterioration, I had braced myself and thought I was strong enough to endure the loss. I was wrong. I feel a very large hole in my life. I try to carry out my critical responsibilities and that's about it. If I try to take on more complex tasks or housekeeping duties, I get anxiety attacks. I wonder if this will subside with time. I am lost and devastated.