Loss of a parent: Adults grieving and coping

Carmen BryceBlog posts

The relationships we develop with our parents can be as varied as our appreciation of musical styles.

Some of us aren’t too close to our parents, some of us don’t really know them at all but for those of us who have been fortunate enough to know our parents as protectors, providers and friends; the loss of this profound relationship can cut deeper than anticipated.

When it comes to such a loss, age doesn’t matter. People in their 50’s report feeling orphaned by the death of a parent.

Finding solace in the midst of intense feelings of grief and loss can often be difficult, specifically if we don’t have anyone in our lives with whom we feel comfortable talking to about what we are enduring.   

Death of a parent is often as much about representative grief as it is about literal grief.

Sometimes our relationship with our parent or parents can seem like the piece that we need to solve, resolve or amend in order to reach full self awareness.  

This represents the universal difficulty in individuation from our family of origin.  Even those who have worked in therapy for many years can find it difficult to individuate from the systems and structures that their childhood has set up for them.  

The death of a parent can very often represent a change in the feeling of longing within ourselves, where we imagine that if we can make this relationship everything that we need it to be, then we will be more whole as a person.  

We all hold our parents (or whomever held the role of primary caregivers in our early life) as the creators or co-creators of our internal emotional compass, whether or not we are aware of this.

In the instance of a parent’s death, a feeling of loss of self comes from that sense of potential for real change being curtailed. It is very important, when we feel this, to spend some time with this feeling and the discomfort that it elicits.

We need to make space for the cognitive realisation that we are, with our parents, now co-creators of our ongoing emotional compass. It is also important that we use this opportunity to increase our self awareness and our self love.

Knowing that the reality is that we hold within ourselves all of the worth and love that we need, is empowering when we have not received this from our parents.  

Further, it is important to rationally understand that our potential for real change in our relationships with our parents is curtailed by their lack of willingness to support this change.  

A parent is unlikely to be willing to engage with their adult children in a different way as this causes the parent to face both their own aging, and the possibility that they made mistakes when they were parenting their children when they were young.  

Acknowledging this can help us to come to terms with the loss of potential for self actualisation through change in this relationship.

This potential has always been a misnomer and the self awareness and self acceptance that many of us crave is a piece about sitting with this discomfort rather than externalising it by asking our parents to resolve it for us.

However, if our parental relationship is one that has been loving and nourishing, it is equally important that we recognise that we are individual and whole, worthy and engaged with all of the love and worth that our parents instilled in us.  

Either way, the death of a parent triggers grief not only for the loss of that relationship in itself and sense of missing that person as they are.  It also triggers grief within our sense of self.

A very young part of ourselves dies when a parent dies.  It can be difficult to recognise this for what it is. It is important. Allowing this feeling to manifest and allowing the pain that it triggers to be expressed is important.

As adults, we need to take time and engage in self care when a parent dies, in whatever form is right for us.  

Some people will find expression in therapy.  Others will find that their intimate relationships can give their grief voice.  

For others, creative expression or physical challenge will be the best means for them of expressing their emotions.  Finding what works for you as an individual is important.

However, whatever we do at this difficult time, do it mindfully.  Be aware that you are grieving and be aware that many behaviours at this time will be a response to grief.  

Accept this, take time and allow space to listen to what you need.

If you are running a marathon because you lost your father, then run your marathon but know that you are doing it to give voice to your grief. Know that for you, physical challenge is the best means to externalise your grief.  

Likewise, if you are talking, to friends or a therapist, know that you are in grief response whilst you do this.  

Instinct can be our greatest guide at a time like this, when our internal emotional compass is maladjusted because it has lost its creator or co-creator.  

By Lorraine Hackett and Silvia Ribeiro