The death of a parent can hit us hard even as adult children. It doesn’t matter if you have been a caregiver or your parent lived alone and independently. When we lose our parents, for the most part, we lose the figures who had been the most influential in our lives. When parents die, their status in our lives might not be equal to that of an earlier period, however, they were such extraordinarily significant people in our lives (either positively or negatively), and as such, that makes their death special. The meaning of our relationship with our parents in our lives at the time of death determines the importance of this loss in our lives.
There is a perception that grief is diminished or easier to handle because our parents lived to a “ripe old age”. After all, parents are supposed to die, after a long life, and before their children, and so we should be able to handle their death, right? And, because the death was expected, sometimes our support systems wonder what’s wrong with us if grief lasts longer than they think it should. The grief experienced after the death of a parent is affected by many factors.
Parents are our first teachers, our models of all life(whether they were a good parent or a bad parent). They are the people we bond with first. They are the keepers of the family history, the family culture and hopefully as parents age, children accept their role in being the wisdom keepers of the family. That may not always be the case when the parent dies. Our parents were at the top of that family system, the elders, and now we find, we have moved into that role.
Our parents helped us to form our images and sense of ourselves. They influenced how we perceive ourselves, what is good, worthwhile, or competent and how much we value ourselves. Parents provided us with the self-concepts through which we evaluate the world, including our feelings, thoughts, hopes, desires, attitudes, values, morals. These are the parents we carry with us forever.
Our own development into an independent adult is important in how we will react to our parent’s death. During developmental years, parents begin to let go of their children, allowing for the flourishing and maturing of the child, helping them to become independent. This process is important for both the child to mature and the parent in letting go.
Our age and the age of our parents when they die is a critical factor influencing our grief. When a child is in their 20’s-30’s it can be the most intense age for losing a parent, as we seek our own identity and independence. We may be relying on our parents for advice or support or both. There is a sense of “being robbed” when a parent dies, missing out on so much of the future, while the child loses that significant person who can validate us in the important areas of life.
For adult children in their 40’s-50’s, they are raising their own children and sending them off to college. Sometimes the death of a parent can be a relief, as they are not suffering anymore, yet sad, as they are not here for those significant family moments. For children in their 60’s, this can be an exceptionally emotional time, knowing that we are on the edge ourselves and not far away from our own death.
Adult children have shared the difficulties of a death when a relationship with a parent is broken, and healing has not happened, nor can it happen. It can be a significant emotional burden on the adult child, one which needs to be addressed, including professional counseling and creating opportunities or rituals of reconciliation. This is not an easy task and can take years.
The death of a parent when we are adults is sad, and we do grieve in the ways that are most appropriate for us giving our development, relationship, age, and other factors with our parents and in our own lives.
Remembering a parent who has died, and the relationship was meaningful, is a good way to celebrate Mother’s Day or Father’s Day. Here are some ideas for remembering:
- Make a music CD of your loved one’s favorite music or listen to music you find comforting.
- Tell a special friend about your loved one who died
- Ask your family for something that belonged to your loved one and/or a photo to keep for yourself
- Make a memory book
- Go on a memory photo outing. Photograph your loved one’s favorite places and put them in an album. Add captions to the photos of special memories.
- Volunteer your time or talents in your loved one’s honor
- Do something your loved one enjoyed (or you enjoy) in their honor (movie, bowling, massage, hiking)
- Take photos of what gives you hope and strength in the midst of your grief.
- Write a letter to your loved one. Save it or burn it letting the ashes rise up.