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Loss of a Parent

Explore the process of grieving for the loss of a mother or father ...

loss of a parent

Saying goodbye to a parent is one of the hardest things we face in our lives. It is also something that almost everyone goes through. Ideally, when parents live their lives through to old age, an individual has time to prepare for the loss. Other times, parents may die unexpectedly, or too early in life, leaving behind children and other loved ones.

Losing a parent means a loss of childhood, of innocence, and a part of oneself. No other bond exists like the one with a parent.

“You are now forced to cope with the loss of parental love and attention that was given uniquely to you, and that you depended on, possibly even took for granted.” says Carol Staudacher, grief educator, consultant, and author of the book “Beyond Grief.”

As young people, we depend on our parents. Parents are caretakers. They typically provide us with information about the world and moral support. They also shape our perceptions about ourselves.

The circumstances of a parent’s death affect the intensity of a person’s grief. These factors include the current and past relationship with the parent, and the individual’s age at the time of the parent’s death. The timing of the death also affects survivors’ reactions. Was the death sudden? Was there long-term suffering involved?

Adult grief over loss of a parent

When a parent dies, whether through old age, unexpectedly, or from disease, children are left with a range of emotions ranging from emptiness and loneliness to guilt and anger. The most common emotions and normal reactions include:

  • Confusion
  • Anxiety
  • Remorse
  • Fear
  • Frustration
  • Yearning
  • Depression

After learning of a parent’s passing, an individual will begin showing symptoms of the five stages of grief (see Stages of Grief). While considered “normal grieving,” it is important for friends and family of the surviving adult child to be aware of the person’s grief, to be supportive, and to be willing to encourage the individual to seek help for extended or difficult grief symptoms, such as uncontrolled crying or prolonged depression.

When death occurs at a decisive time in the adult’s life, such as at a time of a wedding, a graduation, birth of a child, or other pivotal moments, accepting and dealing with this loss can be even more difficult. For example, if the adult is struggling with health issues themselves, the parent’s death raises questions of his or her own mortality.

Even when a person is estranged from the parent that passes away, losing that parent brings up powerful emotions. If a person lacked a bond with the parent, or in cases where abuse or abandonment was involved, death can be a time for closure.

The parent’s death will likely bring up all of the unpleasant emotions one experienced during the abuse. Unresolved anger is the most common emotion for people in this situation. Even if that parent was already “dead” to a child, the emotions cannot be ignored. It leaves people with feelings of unfinished business, lost opportunity, ambivalence, regret; and also feelings of relief and freedom. The only way to deal with these emotions is to face them in psychotherapy or grief therapy.

If the surviving adult was a caretaker for the parent, similar feelings of guilt and ambivalence will be experienced. A sense of relief—both for oneself and for the parent who was suffering—is normal. Losing a parent will also sometimes turn surviving siblings into caretakers for younger brothers and sisters. Pressures like this can delay the grieving process.

As with all grieving, special occurrences such as birthdays and holidays are especially difficult when surviving the loss of a parent. Renewed grief on these occasions is known as an anniversary reaction, and while these reactions can re-occur for years, they are most common for the first three to 24 months. These types of anniversary reactions are even more pronounced in children.

Children’s grief over loss of a parent

Psychological research has shown that a person’s age affects his or her ability to cope with the death of a parent. According to clinical psychologist Maxine Harris, PhD, in her book “The Lifelong Impact of the Early Death of a Mother or Father,” the loss of a parent before adulthood has a profound effect on the rest of that person’s life. The loss affects adult personality development, a sense of security, and relationships with the surviving parent and significant others.

Loss of a parent at an early age has been shown to lead to long-term psychological damage in children, especially when the parent lost is the mother. To prevent this, psychologists suggest grief therapy for the child (see Grief Therapy), allowing the child to express his or her feelings and providing feedback and activities to pursue when grief resurfaces.

According to Psychologist J.W. Worden, and the Harvard Child Bereavement Study (HCBS), children have four “tasks” of mourning they must accomplish in order to process the death of a parent:

  • They must accept the reality of the parent’s death.
  • They must experience the grieving and emotional pain of the loss.
  • They must adjust to the world in which the deceased is no longer there.
  • They must find ways to memorialize the deceased, and relocate the lost parent within his or her life in a different way.

In a 1999 study in the Journal of Youth and Adolescence entitled “Children's Psychological Distress Following the Death of a Parent,” girls were more likely to experience depressive symptoms after the loss of a parent than boys. Additionally, younger children were more at risk for depressive symptoms than older children.

Children need age-appropriate support—that is, counseling and support that correlates to the way a person processes death at a certain age—to deal with the effects of the loss of a parent and the ensuing grief. Since people understand death differently at different stages of development, the emotional support they receive needs to reflect the child’s ability to process the information. Children almost always exhibit some type of regression behavior when a parent dies. It is important to recognize these behaviors as part of grieving and not to punish the child for them. Children might resort to a behavior they had left behind, such as thumb sucking, bed wetting, or uncontrolled crying.

Behavioral grief symptoms in children include:

  • Withdrawal
  • Searching for the deceased
  • Avoiding places and people who remind them of the deceased
  • Changes in eating habits
  • Crying

Adolescent grief is an area of continuing interest and research. Teenagers experience such a varying and dynamic range of emotions, sometimes responding to psychological tests as adults, sometimes through avoidance or masking of emotions, and sometimes they respond as children. However, we do know that adolescents are susceptible to short and long-term emotional damage from the loss of a parent. Teenagers may act out through risk-taking behavior, and disinterest in school and activities is common following the loss of a parent.

In addition to emotional reactions, children of all ages will suffer from physical symptoms of grief. Physical symptoms experienced by both children and adolescents include weakness, low energy, dry mouth, and shortness of breath.

In order to successfully work through the grief of a parent’s death, individuals need to be open to dealing with their emotions completely, to express them honestly, and discuss them with someone who can provide support. Only through this process will a person be able to resolve his or her grief.

The study and treatment of mental health issues is a growing field in the United States. People interested in the study of human behavior and in helping others will find a career in mental health counseling extremely rewarding. If you are interested in assessing and assisting people dealing with grief, you should consider a career as mental health counselor. Education and experience in psychology can lead to careers in counseling and therapy, or other psychology related fields. Request information from schools offering degree programs in psychology or counseling to learn more.

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