Losing a parent is a life-changing, profound experience that almost everyone will go through at least once. In fact, the death of a parent is one of the most common types of death, and as a society, we expect we will outlive our parents. As a result, while the grief that accompanies the death of a parent can quickly be recognized with the inundation of flowers and sympathy cards, this commonality seems to minimize the loss and makes us think we should “get over” it soon. The truth is, it can still be a tremendous loss – and this sense of “get over it” can make the healing even more difficult because it comes with guilt.
While the death of a parent regardless of one’s age is universally a colossal experience, the death of a mother or father as a young adult can be even more devastating because it is compounded with unique obstacles. For instance, there are milestones that the parent is expected to be present for, such as college graduations or weddings, and it can seem impossible for anyone else to fill that space. Plus, for young adults, this type of loss can be especially difficult because they are on the cusp of dependence versus independence. While they strive to depend on themselves, they still may turn to their parents for financial assistance, emotional support, or the wisdom of lived experience.
And we know this much: When a parent dies suddenly or expectedly, there is an absence – an emptiness, perhaps – that arrives with the realization someone so significant is gone. Regardless of the relationship dynamics, whether it was balanced and warm versus chaotic or cold, the death will have a huge impact.
Some beliefs among young adults who have dealt with the death of one or both parents
“I feel so alone and misunderstood.”
“My best friend says she ‘get its’ because she lost her grandma. But I lost my mom. It’s just not the same.”
“I will never feel loved that way again.”
“Everyone is telling me I need to ‘get over it’ and start living my life. But how am I supposed to move forward knowing I’ll never hear Mom’s voice ever again?”
“Dad’s gone. Who is going to walk me down the aisle?”
“I’m so sick and tired of my friends complaining about their silly problems! They have no idea what it’s like to be in this much pain!”
“I’ve always wanted to be a mother. I wanted so desperately to have a family of my own. Now that I’m pregnant, I should feel excited. But instead, I’m just thinking about that my baby will grow up without grandparents.”
“Thanksgiving is going to be weird this year. Dad always sat at the head of the table. He always carved the turkey. He always said grace. I just don’t even want to go.”
“Mom has been an absolute mess ever since Dad’s been gone. I want to help her, but she doesn’t seem to care that I’m hurting too. It feels like she’s gone too even though she’s here.”
“They say they’re ‘here for me’ but they’re not. No one wants to talk about Dad anymore now that the funeral’s over. If I say something, I’ll sound negative.”
“My friends have told me I need to start ‘living my life’ again. They’re sick of me being so mopey and depressed. I’ve noticed they’re pulling away from me. Now I feel like I’ve not only lost my parents, but even my own friends, the same people who said they’ll always be there for me no matter what.”
“I hate to admit it… I feel guilty saying it… but yeah, I’m jealous of my friends. While they’re looking forward to happy things like getting married or graduation, I’m taking care of my mother who is terminal. She’s going to die and that’s that.”
“It pisses me off when people tell me ‘She’s in a better place now.’ It invalidates how I’m feeling.”
The adult orphan syndrome following the death of a parent
For most people, they have known their parent(s) longer than anyone else in their lives. Whether the relationship was positive or negative, or there were additional issues like separation, parents still shape their children.
The identity of “son” or “daughter” is the first identity upon us all. Most people were cared for by their parents as they grew up, even if not done well, and their parents witnessed all the obstacles along the way – seeing all the rises and falls, all the happiness and despair, all the pulling in and pushing away for guidance.
By adulthood, we have formed far more identities while carrying over some from childhood. Yet the age never matters – we continue to be a son or daughter, the role carried from since the beginning.
To lose a parent thus brings about a role loss. When I lost both of my parents, I realized my first role – “I am a daughter” – was destroyed too. And my first sense of constancy, of a promise something will always endure, had died too. We all seem to realize we will likely outlive our parents, but the idea of them dying is so often shaken off until it happens. We see the relationship as permanent as the sun rising with every dawn.
Losing a parent in adulthood can bring about complicated emotions, one of them being abandonment. Even people who are very independent from their parents can still feel abandoned because the sense of constancy has been disrupted.
For young adults who were the main caregiver for an aging, disabled, or ill parent, the grief can be exacerbated since two roles are now lost: the role of being one’s child but also serving as their “parent.” It may also mean having to adopt new roles in the family going forward, such as needing to help the surviving parent with paying bills because they feel overwhelmed and that was always done by their spouse.
All of these issues are recognized by some researchers as what they call “adult orphan syndrome” in that the feelings of abandonment, confusion, role changes, lack of support, and idea of being alone are universal regardless of age. For some, the idea of being an orphan as an adult may sound insensitive to children who are orphaned, but it is not meant to compare or dull that pain – only meant to show that the feelings and complications can still exist.
It is interesting, too, that this type of loss has no such word in English. An orphan literally means a child whose parents are dead. A widow is a woman who lost her spouse; a widower a man who lost his spouse. Yet why not a word for those who lost a parent in adulthood?
Challenges faced by young adults experiencing parent loss
Although parent loss can be painful at any age, there are differences that are driven by our age brackets.
First of all, most young adults have parents who are alive and likely well. They may be mostly independent, but they know they can still rely on their parents when needed (obviously there are exceptions, but I am speaking in general). They and their friends will be “going home” for the holidays during college breaks to stay with their parents. They know their parents will be there at their commencement ceremonies, sharing in their joy for their successes. They excitingly call their parents when they get engaged, wanting them to be the very first people to know. Then during the engagement months, their parents are involved too, with the mother helping with choosing the dress and adorning her daughter on her wedding day, and the father walking her down the aisle. Parents, too, are also usually the first to learn when their child and the child’s partner are expecting a baby. And they are there for the baptism or other ceremonies, there for the birthday parties, the holidays, for help with childcare.
While these above milestones can still occur despite the death of one or both parents, it feels different. I will honestly admit I skipped my commencement ceremonies from college and graduate school (the pandemic did postpone the latter ceremony by a year, but regardless, I still did not go even when it was happening). I did not want to be “that person” who was there without their parents, that adult orphan. And while I was proud of myself, having been summa cum laude both times, I did not feel there were others to share in that sense of accomplishment.
I can also say that among my friends and family members, most of them do not understand what I have gone through as a parentless young adult. That is not subjective; it is factual. Some are fortunate to still have their parents. Others have lost their parents, but that was not until their mothers and fathers were in their geriatric years. My grandmother died at the advanced age of 93, an age considered a “life well lived.” My mother died at 57. While the adult orphan syndrome happens at any age, and pain is pain, it still does not feel the same. There is the lingering thought, “she should be here.”
Healing from parent loss as a young adult
The goal of bereavement therapy is not to “get back to normal.” That is impossible, for life has forever changed due to the death of the parent. The idea of having to “move on” is counterproductive, and in fact can make someone feel worse because they are burying the emotions they need to process. Instead, the goal after such a loss is to learn to redefine one’s life and to feel fulfilled despite the loss. It also not only the loss itself that must be explored, but also the update in roles, the severance of expectations, and all other things that come with death.
Losing one’s parent can unearth disturbing thoughts. It can make someone question their own mortality with the realization they too will die someday. They may think things like, “since Dad died at 45, that means I’ll die at 45 too” even if they realize that is irrational. Additionally, it can make one reflect on the importance of other relationships in their lives. One person may become closer to their siblings or friends, while others may distance themselves, and still others may decide to focus solely on their spouses and their children.
Such a loss can also be an inspiration to make newfound changes in one’s life – some for the better. For me, I was smacked with the realization of, “I must rely on myself. I am an adult” the moment my father died. This realization did not strike me when I moved out at age 19 to live across the country. It did not fall upon me on my wedding day. Hell, it did not even come up during the discussions with my husband about starting our own family. No, it really took him dying for me to have this fricken’ epiphany. Only a month after his death, I was on job interviews to have greater opportunities. Right now on the weekends, I am house-hunting with my husband rather than doing the same ol’, some ol’ things we did with our friends. We are trying to conceive.
I was already following a plant-based and low-alcohol lifestyle, but after my father died, I made the full commitment to being healthy. I make selective, nutritious choices, and I do not drink at all. A healthy lifestyle is my priority now, my sworn vow to myself, because I don’t want to die the way my parents did if I can help it. I want to live. One profound effect of the loss of one or both parents is the opportunity for positive changes.
The next step
Suffolk Family Therapy recognizes the aftermath of a death is a significant, life-altering process. Some of our clinicians specialize in grief and bereavement, including having specialized training in this important field. We offer individual therapy and group therapy for this topic. In fact, we are even starting a group called Millennials in Mourning, which is specifically for Millennials and older Zoomers who have experienced parental loss. It will be led by me, Valerie Smith!
Reach out today to learn how we can help you navigate through this challenge while building a brighter future.
About the author, Valerie Smith, LMSW
Valerie Smith, LMSW, CFTG, is a therapist, social worker, and certified forest therapy guide at Suffolk Family Therapy under the supervision of our clinical director, Jamie Vollmoeller, LCSW. Valerie possesses a bachelor and master’s degree in social work from Adelphi University and Fordham University, both from which she graduated summa cum laude. Valerie is also a certified forest therapy guide through the Association of Nature and Forest Therapy (ANFT), where she trained in the Rocky Mountains to master sensory-based, mindful activities through a biophilic perspective. Valerie is passionate about the health benefits of a plant-based diet as well as holistic wellness. Valerie is trained in EMDR and TF-CBT, with experience in DBT-informed skills. She focuses her treatment on adolescent girls and young women with C-PTSD and PTSD. Additionally, she helps people with life-threatening disease and their caregivers. Finally, she works alongside those experiencing grief and bereavement, especially young adults who lost one or both of their parents/guardians.