What Is Adult Child Loss?
Losing a child – at any age – defies nature. Parents should not bury their children. The sorrow and loss is unimaginable, shattering, and the grief all-encompassing. Every relationship changes, the family structure is forever altered, and the table is always missing one.
The death of any child, regardless of cause or age, is overwhelming to parents, who can never be fully prepared for their child to die before them. Parental grief is intense, long-lasting, and complex.
The grief and the healing process contain similar elements for all bereaved parents, but for those whose adult child has died, there are additional factors that may affect their grief. Others often assume that when the child who died was an adult, the parents’ pain is less than if the child was young. Parents whose adult child has died often find their grief discounted or disallowed
When an adult child dies, grief and grieving can be especially difficult for parents. Their child is seen as an adult; therefore the loss should be less profound and have less of an impact on his or her parents. Even the most well-meaning of people can forget that when a husband of a friend passes away that man was also someone’s son. His mother, his father, his family, they grieve, too.
Parents who have lost an adult child find that their grief and grieving is complex.
What Is Loss?
Loss is the involuntary separation from something we have possessed and perhaps even treasured, or someone we love and care about.
Everyone experiences a loss at some point in their lives – whether or not it is major or minor. Loss is universal.
Loss involves emotional pain. Significant losses produce emotional upheaval. Loss requires change and uncertainty and adjustments to new situations, unchosen and uncertain.
There is no right or wrong way to feel after you experience a loss. Minor losses, such as the loss of an opportunity, may bring feelings of frustration, disappointment, or anger. Major losses can lead to similar feelings, overwhelming feelings, sadness, pain, or numbness.
You do not have to be “strong” after a loss to protect others around you. Expressing emotion is how the body and mind process and relieve the pressure of intense or overwhelming emotions. Crying or expressing other emotions does not make you less of a person. It is also not uncommon for people to feel numb. People who don’t cry may still be feeling the effects of a loss. Everyone expresses their pain differently.
No one can tell you how you should feel about something. Anyone who tries to tell you that how you are feeling is wrong is wrong.
What Are The Types of Loss?
Sudden Losses are losses that happen due to accidents, crimes, or suicides, and they do not give us any time to prepare. These type of losses often shake us to the core, making us question the stability of life. The loss can feel immediate, severe, and agonizing. It can be difficult to sort through many emotions and feelings at the same time, and it may take time and space to adjust to the loss.
Predictable Losses, like those due to terminal illness, allow for us to prepare for the loss, but also create two layers of grief. Anticipatory grief (the grief related to the anticipation of the loss) and the grief related to the loss itself.
One reason loss is so difficult is that it can be permanent. As humans, our lives are so fluid that the idea of permanence can be difficult to grasp. Further, if your life is structured around the person, object, or concept lost, it can be difficult to adjust to new patterns and routines.
Initially After Your Child’s Death:
When your child has died, suddenly it seems like all meaning has been drained from your life. When you wake in the morning, it’s difficult to get out of bed, much less live a “normal” life. All that was right with the world now seems wrong and you’re wondering when, or if, you’ll ever feel better.
We’ve been there ourselves and understand some of the pain you are feeling right now. We are truly glad that you have found us but profoundly saddened by the reason. We know that you are trying to find your way in a bewildering experience for which no one can truly be prepared.
When you’re newly bereaved, suddenly you find yourself on an emotional roller-coaster where you have no idea what to expect next. Here are thoughts on some of what you may be experiencing or feeling (many of these will apply to bereaved siblings and grandparents):
- You rail against the injustice of not being allowed the choice to die instead of your child.
- You find yourself filled with anger, whether it be at your partner, a person you believe is responsible for your child’s death, God, yourself, and even your child for dying.
- You yearn to have five minutes, an hour, a day back with your child so you can tell your child of your love or thoughts left unsaid.
- Guilt becomes a powerful companion as you blame yourself for the death of your child. Rationally you know that you were not to blame—you most certainly would have saved your child if you’d been given the chance.
- You feel great sadness and depression as you wrestle with the idea that everything important to you has been taken from you. Your future has been ruined and nothing can ever make it right.
Social and Family Issues:
- If you have surviving children, you find yourself suddenly overprotective, not wanting to allow them out of your sight. Yet you feel like a bad parent because it’s so difficult to focus on their needs when you’re hurting so bad yourself.
- You find that your remaining family at home grieves the loss differently and you search for a common ground which seems difficult to find.
- You’ve been told by well-meaning people, even professionals, that 70-80-90 percent of all couples divorce after their child dies. You are relieved to find that new studies show a much lower divorce rate, from 12-16%, believed to be caused by the “shared experience” aspect of the situation.
- Old friends seem to fade away as you learn they cannot comprehend the extent or length of your grief.
- Things you liked to do which seemed so important before now seem meaningless.
- Others say you’ll someday find “closure,” not understanding that closure never applies when it is the death of your child.
- Fleeting thoughts of pleasurable activities bring about feelings of guilt. If you child can’t have fun, how can you do anything that brings you enjoyment?
- New friends come into your life who understand some of your grief because they’ve been there themselv
- Your memory has suddenly become clouded. You’re shrouded in forgetfulness. You’ll be driving down the road and not know where you are or remember where you’re going. As you walk, you may find yourself involved in “little accidents” because you’re in a haze.
- You fear that you are going crazy.
- You find there’s a videotape that constantly plays in an endless loop in your mind, running through what happened.
- You find your belief system is shaken and you try to sort out what this means to your faith.
- Placing impossible deadlines on yourself, you go back to work, but find that your mind wanders and it’s difficult to function efficiently or, some days, at all. Others wonder when you’ll be over “it,” not understanding that you’ll never be the same person you were before your child died—and the passage of time will not make you so.
- You find yourself reading the same paragraph over and over again trying to understand what someone else has written.
- Maybe you can’t sleep or you sleep all the time. You feel physical exhaustion even when you have slept.
- You no longer care about your health and taking care of yourself—it just doesn’t seem that important anymore.
- You’re feeling anxiety and great discomfort—you’re told they’re panic attacks.
- The tears come when you least expect them.
- Your appetite is either gone or you find yourself overeating.
What Parents May Experience After Losing An Adult Child:
Many parents who lose an adult child feel intense guilt over having outlived their child. This guilt is compounded if the death was caused by socially unacceptable conditions like suicide or drug addiction. Grieving parents wonder how they could have prevented the death of their adult child, especially when others make judgmental statements about their child.
Most bereaved parents experience guilt for having outlived their child. When adult children die as the result of suicide, substance related causes, driving drunk, AIDS, or other reasons that carry a social stigma, many parents often experience an even more intense sense of guilt for not having realized that their child was having serious difficulties. Parents often wonder what they could have done differently to prevent the situations that may have caused their child’s death.
Judgmental statements from others indicating that the child died as the result of his or her own actions only add to the intense pain and sense of isolation and defeat felt by the parents. When suicide is involved, others may ask why no one saw it coming, causing the parents to feel they should have been able to see something often hidden deep within their child that not even experts in the field can always foresee.
Many times adult children live in a different area from the parents, and will have become established with their own homes, families, and careers. Thus, the parents have already dealt with the separation and adjusted to the changed routine or the empty nest syndrome. However, those who have not fully accepted the child leaving home, or the circumstances of their leaving, may find their grief greatly intensified.
Some parents were supporting their adult child due to a physical or mental illness, or when suffering difficulties with drugs or alcohol. This son or daughter may have become the focus of their lives, and the death leaves a huge void in the daily routine, which adds to their grief and feeling of loss.
In the name of “comfort” (note the quotes), people will often make statements like, “Well, at least you had xxx years with him.” Statements like that insinuate that the bereaved parent should be grateful for the time they spent with their child, not sad that their child has passed away.
If an adult child dies as a result of an accident or illness, parents are frequently told by friends or family that they should be grateful their child lived as long as he or she did. Of course, you are grateful to have had your child for 20 or 30 years, or sometimes much longer, but that does not mean your grief is lessened.
Many parents have observed that their relationship with their adult child had evolved into one of friendship. Not only do they feel they have lost their child—they have lost a friend, often their best friend, as well.
Over time it is normal for the relationship between parents and older children to develop from parent child to a more mature relationship. Parents who have loved, reared, and encouraged their child’s development into maturity and a full life of their own, feel a sense of pride and accomplishment as the adult child completes his or her education, establishes a career and develops adult relationships. By the time a child has reached adulthood, parents have made an immense emotional and financial investment in this person. When that life has not run its anticipated span, there is often a sense of abandonment combined with total futility. Parents often question their own purpose in life, since everything they invested in their child now seems for naught.
Discounted grief also occurs when the adult child dies from a cause that makes others uncomfortable or judgmental.
Grieving Alongside Their Child’s Spouse/Partner/Children: Often, an adult child will already have a spouse or partner and children. The focus of the support and grieving will be focused highly on them and not the parent. This hurts. Grandchildren will need to be comforted so the stress can be taken off the spouse or partner. This often falls to the grandparents and is exhausting for parents who are already grieving. Parents will also worry about who will take care of them when they are older now that their child is gone.
Grieving When Their Partner Dates or Remarries: Often, the widow or widower will rekindle some sort of relationship with someone else after a loss. If there are children involved, the parents of the deceased adult child will more than likely be involved in the new life with the new partner. Sometimes this is a happy occasion, sometimes it’s not. Whether the relationship with the new partner is amicable or not, the grief is often revisited because the loss is realized as life has moved on.
Issues Surrounding the Death of an Adult Child:
Losses, at any age, have an immense amount of issues associated with that loss. When an adult child dies, the parent of an adult child may experience the following:
- If the adult child was married or had a family, the focus will usually be on the grief of the child’s immediate family and not the parents.
- If the child was unmarried, there will be property, finances, estate, wills, and other legal issues with which the parents must contend.
- If the adult child was married, decisions and choices made around a memorial/funeral service will most often be made by the spouse, and input or thoughts from the parents are not welcomed or taken into consideration.
- If the adult child had children, they may need comforting as the surviving spouse is usually exhausted physically and emotionally and may be unable to comfort the children, who are also grieving.
- The parents of an unmarried adult child may be the ones who have to notify the child’s employer, pastor, and friends.
- Parents eventually may have to handle the emotions that will arise when the spouse dates or remarries.
- Parents, especially those who are elderly or whose only child has died, may experience fears and concerns regarding who will take care of them in later years or in the case of failing health.
- If the parent has been financially or emotionally dependent upon the adult child, decisions must be made regarding where to turn for support.
- Parents who have lost an adult child who was married, the focus of grief and comfort will be upon the family of the deceased child, not the parents.
- If the adult child had children, the grandchildren will need comforting, as the spouse of the deceased adult child will be in shock and denial. That responsibility often rests upon the grandparents, or the parents of the adult child.
How to Cope With Losing An Adult Child:
Grief is one of the most common reactions to a loss. There are typically five stages of grief:
These stages may happen in any order, at any time, or not at all. Some people feel some but not all of the stages of grief. Because there is not a typical loss and each situation is different, it is hard to figure out what a “typical reaction” is. Some people feel:
- Shock and disbelief – difficulty accepting what happened, numbness
- Sadness – one of the more common feelings experienced. This may also be emptiness, despair, loneliness, and crying
- Guilt – Things you said, shouldn’t have said, or wanted to say, not preventing the death
- Anger – feelings of anger and resentment
- Physical symptoms – aches, pains, headaches, nausea, changes in sleep or weight
However you are feeling, it can be overwhelming and out of control. One way to manage intense emotions is to observe them, describe them, and label them. Sometimes putting a name to your emotion can help you express it. Also remember that we experience emotions like a wave- the emotion will build, crest, and recede.
How To Handle The Loss of an Adult Child:
Talk to friends and family who love you and make you feel good about yourself. Lean on people who love you and care about you.
Don’t expect that you’re going to “get over it.” The only way to “get over” a loss is to go through the stages of grieving. There’s no reason to try to be the strong one – just let yourself feel however you feel.
Write about it. Sometimes the act of writing down how you’re feeling can help solidify those feelings and help you to grieve your loss. Please feel free to use Band Back Together to share your struggles and your stories.
Let yourself feel the loss. The only way to get through a loss is to go through the stages of grief. You can’t bypass it, no matter how much you’d like to. Sit with your feelings and acknowledge them.
Talk to a therapist or grief counselor – someone who is trained to help you get through your grief.
Exercise – exercise releases endorphins, which are the “feel-good” hormones.
Don’t minimize your own loss. If it was a loss, it was a loss. Losses are meant to be grieved.
Don’t compare your loss to others’ loss. It’s apples and oranges. You feel a loss how you feel it, not how someone else feels it.
Be sure to take care of yourself. Go through your daily hygiene routines, get up, and do something.
IT’S OKAY TO BE SAD!
How to Comfort Yourself After Losing an Adult Child:
Take care of your health: It’s easy to neglect yourself while grieving. Remember to eat well, sleep on a normal schedule, and get outside for some exercise.
Share your feelings: Talk about your child, your sadness, and your anger. Write in a journal. Start a blog. Post here! Get your feelings out.
Be kind and patient: Be kind to yourself. Give yourself permission to grieve and also permission to have fun. Some things will take longer and more energy than others, so be patient. Healing isn’t going to happen overnight.
Surround yourself with memories: You have years of memories. Don’t put them in a box and stuff them in the attic. Make sure you have pictures and reminders around you. It’s painful at times, but it’s healing to be able to see their face, smiling and healthy. This is especially important if your child had a terminal illness and was in a hospital or hospice facility at the end of their life. You want to remember them as the happy, vibrant, and smiling person they were.
Join a support group or see a counselor: Many places offer support groups for various illnesses and causes of death. Churches and hospitals are among the most common. Support groups are wonderful resources for realizing you are not alone in your pain. You will learn and heal from the compassion of others, and they will heal from the support from you.
Let people help. When people ask what you need, don’t hesitate to tell them. People want to help; they simply may not know how to help.
Be okay with not being okay. You’ll probably question your faith. Your life. You’ll wonder if you could’ve prevented the death of your child. These are normal – and really tough – things to conquer. Don’t expect that you’ll be okay for awhile after the loss.
Find a therapist who specializes in bereavement – this can be your lifeline to getting your life back. Things will never be normal again, but they will be okay. In time. A counselor may help you work through specific parts of your grief on an individual basis.
Remember the good times and the bad. Don’t spend all your time focusing on the loss of your child or how he or she died; remember the happy times, too.
Facing the Future After Adult Child Loss:
Be assured that a sense of purpose and meaning does return and the pain does lessen. One of the most demanding challenges you will face is to refocus your life. Reexamining priorities and even questioning belief structures is not abnormal. If you are working outside the home, concentrate on arranging additional time off from work and plan ahead how you will handle special days such as anniversary dates and holidays. Often the day is easier than the fear that may lead up to it.
With remaining family, talk about the death, the loss, and the pain. Revisit the good memories of your child, and not just the immediate memories of the death. Try to understand that every person within the family will be grieving in their own manner. It is better to express feelings than to internalize them; crying has been proven to be healthy and therapeutic.
Allow friends to help. When they ask what they can do for you, don’t be afraid to tell them of your needs. This will also help them.
Bereaved parents often want to do something constructive in memory of their sons or daughters.
Many have established memorial funds, created scholarships, made donations to special charities, given books to libraries, planted trees, and become involved in helping others. For many, such acts keep the memories of their children alive and vibrant, giving them and others opportunities to feel the beauty of the life and love of their child. Not only are these activities a wonderful tribute, but they can also be very healing while providing a sense of purpose to the parent.
Resources for Grieving Parents:
CancerCare – This site offers resources for people of all ages fighting cancer or caring for someone fighting cancer.
Recover From Grief – A site run by a former ICU nurse and Certified Grief Counselor. Offers resources on healing and moving forward after the death of an adult child.
Death of an Adult Child by Therese A. Rando, Ph.D. An excerpt from How to Go On Living When Someone You Love Dies
Bereaved Parents – This site offers support and resources for grieving parents of adult children.
Page last audited 8/2018