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


13 days ago, said...

My mom died 2 weeks ago after 7 years with Alzheimers and at the time of her death and funeral I was less sad since her suffering, especially the last 5 days in the hospital, was over. Now that it has been a few weeks I feel the grief so much more. At almost 50 I was very close to my mom both emotionally and location, I never lived more than 15 mins from my parents. So even though I lost the mom I knew years ago to Alzheimer I now just lost that mother-daughter relationship forever. As a mother of only sons the loss of my mom when I have no daughters is something I didn't expect to grieve. I will never again have that mother-daughter relationship something my sisters and most women don't experience.


about 1 month ago, said...

My mom died on June 7th of this year. I am mostly able to keep it together but at night I lose it. I cry just about every night. When I'm working I'm good but I have a 10 day vacation from work without pay and I just can't stop crying and thinking about her. She was my best friend. She had social anxiety and didn't have any friends so I was her best friend too. We talked about things and I tried to get her to forget about so many things that hurt her in the past. I would tell her you are getting off of Happiness Highway and getting on Depression Drive when she would start complaining and that she did. Well she's been gone for 5 months now today and I'm surprised that I can't feel better. I've been through so many things in my life but this one is tough.


about 1 month ago, said...

I lost my dad to cancer when I was 26. I lost my husband to cancer 3 months ago. I am 41 and a stay-at-home Mom with 4 kids under 14. Life isn’t fair. And it’s very, very hard.


about 1 month ago, said...

When I finished grad school my Dad had a stroke. I took care of him for 5 years. Soon after he died(he stopped eating) I got diagnosed with Type 1 diabetes. My mother was no use in his care. Soon afterwards my mom need care for Alzheimer’s disease. She died in 2014. I’m an only child. My friends have all left the city, and I have no aunts or uncles left. I have 2 cousins who don’t gife a damn about me. I’m very shy and am not married. I’m not working due to the diabetes and depression. I’m really at the end of the line here and running out of money. No one gives a damn about about me, and the loneliness is killing me. Sometimes I just wish I could join them? Anything is better than this.


3 months ago, said...

life’s not always a merry story. Men, after all, are only mortal. People lose their parents at some stage in life. But perhaps, it is toughest to lose them as a young kid. It is almost certain that if you lose a parent a very young age, you’ll have to go through things that no one will ever understand. https://askopinion.com/how-to-cope-with-losing-a-parent-at-a-young-age


3 months ago, said...

Time does not seem to ease anything. My dad was diagnosed with bladder cancer and my mom just couldn't take care of his needs. We drove him from a hospital to the nursing home that was close to the home. Mom and I went to see dad everyday first thing in the mornnng and would spend the entire day with him, laughing, wheeling him outside in the wheelchair, talking, watching him sleep, being there when he woke up. He made the decision, informed and we accepted his choice, to not have treatment of any kind as it would just ruin the rest of his body and would not extend his time but just the suffering. His last three days he was mostly sleeping as the pain killers kept him sleepy. He passed gently after taking a deep breath, as I'm told, because I had just left. My mom was with him as well as two of the best friends a family could have. At 74 he was gone. Fast forward 5 short years and after selling our only home since 1976, my mom moved to be close to me. Being alone far away was not an option. I loved having her so close and we hung out, ate out, talked, cried, laughed and all the things best friends do! With no health problems to speak of at 74 yrs old, she jaundiced. The dr was scheduled for surgery to remove her gallbladder and then he comes in, cancels the surgery and says "we found something that we need to know what it is before we do surgery." After a week of tests, surgical procedures, IV lines, drains and other discomforts, we had an answer. Stage IV liver cancer and there is nothing that could be done. I broke. My mom was so brace and strong - oncologist visits, hospice visits and 6 weeks later, she died in my arms at home shortly after my best friend arrived from another state. She was gone at 74 , Oct, 23,2016. I had to return to work and plan a memorial, ashes delivery and all the things that I never thought I would have to do. After a year I still miss her so much and it hurts every day. The work to fulfill promises and wishes were complete two months ago. So now the grieving begins. Holding it in for 9 months out of necessity has made this much more difficult. Hanging in but understand loss.


3 months ago, said...

Lynnkay: Seriously grow up, you sound like the one acting childish


3 months ago, said...

Linbrad, It is perfectly normal whatever you are feeling. Even though we know losing our parents is inevitable, we cannot fully prepare ourselves. Love on your dad and say whatever you can to him, play music, read to him and enjoy every moment. My dad died suddenly but while he was in icu, I did everything he would have loved and sang to him, read, smelled him (to try and remember his smell). He passed four months ago and I would say its getting a bit harder and more real that one of my best friends is gone physically. I do try to integrate him in my life still, just not in the way I am use to. I use his sayings or I can sometimed hear what he would likely tell me. He was super bossy lol. I miss him with a hole in my heart but our bond will never ever be broken. Sending you love and comfort.


3 months ago, said...

Hi everyone. My dad is currently in the hospital right now succumbing to pulmonary fibrosis. He is 86 and was diagnosed 4 years ago. I just turned 39. We have always been very close. I feel like I started grieving when he was diagnosed bc it is a terminal illness. I figured having all that time to prepare would help but it hasn't. He has been in and out of the hospital for the past two months. I am 4 months pregnant and having a hard time dealing with everything. I also have severe anxiety and cannot be on my anxiety meds bc of the pregnancy. Will there be a day when things are somewhat normal again? If anyone could help that would be great.


4 months 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.


4 months 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.


4 months ago, said...

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


5 months 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.


5 months 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.