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.