Grief for the Loss of our Parents

Elizabeth Kubler Ross, the famous German psychiatrist who taught the world about grief and loss, once said: “The reality is that you will grieve forever. You will not ‘get over’ the loss of a loved one; you will learn to live with it. You will heal and you will rebuild yourself around the loss you have suffered.  You will be whole again, but you will never be the same.”

The above insight helps to bring meaning to a most painful time in the life of an individual, the eventual loss of a parent. Those of us granted life have to face the loss of the most profound of all our relationships. The relationship a person has with a parent affects every stage of our life. Therefore, losing a parent at each stage in life has unique challenges.

The death of a parent when the child is young can be perceived as a lifelong trauma.

“Andrew,” a man in his mid 60’s, came to my practice with several traumatic memories he wanted to address in therapy. The first trauma was the death of his mother, tragically occurring when he was age 8. In his case, Andrew was aware that his mother received periodic “treatments” at the hospital. However, he was never told that she had cancer that could lead to death. One day, Andrew’s father returned home and informed him that his mother had died. He missed the opportunity for any closure or to say goodbye to his mother. Andrew spent the following six decades re-living these terrifying and confusing memories of his mother’s final year. Children may often believe that whatever happens to them is a direct result of something they did or did not do.

Together, we addressed those memories through EMDR (Eye Movement Desensitization Reprocessing) therapy. That work enabled Andrew to process the traumatic memories and events that had been controlling his life. We were able to remove the disturbance without removing the memories.

When losing a parent in different stages of life, different reactions can manifest:    

  • Losing a parent as a teenager can initiate a host of issues at a time when you are forming your identity and navigating that stage. The death of a parent can contribute to significant depression, anxiety, and negative self-image. Teens are more at risk for addictive and acting out behaviors.
  • When you lose a parent as a young adult (20’s, 30’s) there are many levels of grief.  A significant component of the loss is time lost that cannot be reclaimed. (i.e., watching you develop a career, missing your marriage, seeing your children be born and grow, being with the family through life’s inevitable challenges)
  • When your parent dies when you are in your “middle years,” (40’s and 50’s)  you have shared life with your parent for many decades. Many bereaved adult children feel this loss very acutely. Perhaps their parents babysat, gave moral or financial support over the years, and were an unconditional source of love and guidance.

Some additional insights into losing a parent as an older adult:

Thanks to advancing medical treatment, procedures and medicine, life expectancy has increased dramatically. As a result, people in their 60’s, 70’s and sometimes 80’s are dealing with the grief of losing their last parent. How does this differ from bereavement at a younger age?

  • When a person is a senior citizen, they can experience an increasing sense of vulnerability, fragility, and consideration of their own mortality.
  • When the last parent dies, there is the feeling that while they were alive there existed a buffer between them and the next world. Suddenly, that buffer disappears.
  • When you have a parent for 60 to 70 years, it is difficult to imagine life without them.
  • Sometimes people in their older years who lose a parent experience a great sense of relief. Often they have had care giving responsibilities for their elderly parents, sometimes for decades, and they suddenly feel free from those burdens.
  • Others experience a feeling of depression that they never had before.

At age 96, Penina was independent and living on her own. But after a mini-stroke that same year, she moved in with her son David and his family. When Penina passed away the following year, David approached his daughter Shayna, and said, “Now, I am an orphan.” David became bereft and felt increasingly vulnerable.

How do you know when to turn to a professional for help?

  • When you are experiencing a sense of loss that doesn’t seem to improve after a significant amount of time has passed. This is known as complicated grief where the individual has such painful feelings that can be debilitating and has difficulty functioning and returning back to their lives.
  • If the loss of a parent is in the early years, therapy can help to process the trauma of an unexpected loss.
  • After accompanying a parent with a protracted illness, being a caregiver and then coping with their death.
  • If you feel that you are just not feeling right and could benefit from an outside source of support.

No matter how old we are or how “prepared” we think we are for their eventual death, we are never really ready for them to die.  It usually is a shock when we find out that their time is drawing to a close. Often it is helpful to use the same compassion that you had for your parents with yourself.  Seek out the support of a professional, family, and friends.

You are not alone.