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Adults Without Parents

Losing a parent is difficult at any age.

Mary Bettini Blank/Pixabay
Source: Mary Bettini Blank/Pixabay

Losing parents at any age is difficult. When it happens to children, the expectation is that they will grieve and mourn. We worry about them if they do not.

However, when an adult loses parents, the pain and suffering experienced are frequently not recognized by others. It becomes a form of disenfranchised grief. Others may think that “it is no big deal.” Cultural myths suggest that “you will not be affected very much if your parent dies when you are an adult” or “you grieve less when the person who died is older and has lived a long life.”

It is inevitable that we will all be orphans at some point in our lives and that we will all be changed by it in some way. It does not matter if the roles have been reversed and we have been our parent’s caregiver or even if our relationship has been distant, strained, or abusive—something happens to us when they are gone. Some of us will mourn what we had while others may mourn the loss of the hope of what we might have had.

Parents continue to be a part of us. Sometimes we hear their loving, encouraging words. Some, however, may continue to hear their parents’ critical and condemning voices that haunt them from the grave. From my own experience and of those with whom I counsel, there are certain recurrent themes and comments that are most frequently expressed.

One is the idea that “I am nobody’s child anymore.” For many, losing parents means that there is no one who loves us unconditionally or is our biggest supporter. There is also likely no one who is as concerned about our physical and emotional wellbeing the way they were.

We still want to seek out our parents’ opinions and approval. When something good or exciting happens, many of us think about calling and telling them. We wonder if they would be proud of us and who we have become. One woman said that the reality of the loss really hit her when passing the cards for Mother’s Day and realizing that she no longer needed to buy one as she had done all her life.

Not everyone had a loving relationship with their parents. Even if you were abused or estranged from your parents, their death can still stir strong feelings such as unresolved anger, ambivalence, or freedom and relief.

With the loss of both parents, roles change in the family. People will say, “All of a sudden, I’ve become the matriarch or patriarch of the family. How did that happen?” In general, our parents tended to be the ones who held the family together. They served as a conduit for information, keeping everyone informed about family happenings. They were also the keepers of the family history and stories.

A frequent regret from those orphaned is that they wish they had asked their parents more about their lives and history while they were alive. Now the questions have no answers. When parents die, some families become closer, while for others, the family falls apart. The glue that held things together is no longer there. We have lost our home and our home base.

Loss of parents in later life often leads to an examination of our own lives. What have we accomplished? Have we done the things we wanted to do? How do we live out the rest of our lives? It is not unusual for people to begin confronting their own mortality. “I’m the older generation now. That means I am next in line to die.” Somehow, when our parents were alive, they served as a buffer between us and death. We may begin reading the obituaries to see if anyone we know has died. It becomes harder to deny our eventual death.

However, thinking and preparing for death is not a bad thing. Sometimes seeing what our parents went through—particularly if they were not prepared—often prompts us to take care of necessary business so that things might be easier for our children, i.e. making advanced funeral arrangements or letting our wishes be known about life-saving medical procedures.

What can we do when our last parent dies? Just because some may think you should be over it, give yourself permission to mourn. After all, they were your parents. As with all grief, being able to talk and share your experience is helpful. There are many people who have also been orphaned and would understand and welcome an opportunity to talk with you.

Research has found that performing private, informal rituals help people cope with loss.[1] This can be something as simple as lighting a candle. Finally, at this time of our lives, we have the opportunity of looking back and forward. We can look at what we have done and what there is we still want to do. We can mend relationships and tell those we love how much we care for them.


[1] Norton, M.I. and Gino, F. (2014). Rituals Alleviate Grieving for Loved Ones, Lovers and Lotteries. Journal of Experimental Psychology: General, Vol. 143, No. 1, 266-272.

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