Losing Your Parents and Coping With the Stress

The death of their parents is often the most traumatic experience in the average person’s life. Indeed, many dread it for years in advance. And yet in spite of this most are still taken by surprise.


Being Kind to Yourself

When someone loses a child, or even a sibling, friends offer limitless support. And yet when they lose a parent, those same friends can be surprisingly unsympathetic. If your parents were old, the general view is that you were going to lose them anyway and that you should be grateful for having had them so long. Hamlet provides a famous example of this. The prince, who is still in mourning for his father, is told to pull himself together. After all, says the queen, “all that lives must die.” His new stepfather even describes him as “obstinate” and “unmanly” for continuing to grieve. Four hundred years later nothing has changed! Whereas grieving for a brother, friend or child is acceptable, grieving for your 85-year-old father somehow isn’t. After a few months people feel you should be over it.

Don’t allow people to bully you. There is no correct way to grieve, and no time frame within which you must get over someone’s death. This is one of the worst experiences you will ever have; indeed, after losing their mother to cancer some find they lose all fear, since they know nothing will ever hurt as much. Don’t feel you ought to stop grieving by a certain date; you may never fully recover. Plenty of people still cry at the memory of their mother’s death 50 years ago. Remember, people behave callously for many reasons. Perhaps they had a bad relationship with their own parents and resent you. Others may feel guilty that they never grieved as deeply.

The relationship between parent and child is often fraught and intense. And children can be hurt more by the death of their estranged or alcoholic father than by the death of a sweet, much-loved mother. In part, this is because so much is left unsaid. Unfortunately, communication is sometimes impossible. So long as they are alive, you can persuade yourself that one day the great breakthrough will come and they will finally understand. You will have a heart to heart conversation and they will throw their arms around you and tell you they love you. Now they have gone and it will never happen.

In other cases, bereavement is simpler: they were your best friend, they’ve gone and you desperately miss them. Obviously that hurts, but at least it is simple and clear. When the relationship was strained, people find they don’t know how to grieve. Again, don’t allow others to influence you. If someone says “but I thought you didn’t get on,” they merely reveal their own lack of depth and sensitivity.

Grieving is a messy, contradictory process. We are often ambivalent about the people we love, feeling affection but also boredom, irritation and even dislike. And that does not end when they die. A part of you may be relieved. You may even have a strange sense of liberation, like the first time your parents went away on vacation and left you behind. These feelings of relief may in turn trigger guilt and shame.

Finally, don’t be too hard on yourself for being unprepared. Nothing really prepares you. People floored by grief will often think “I’m a grown-up. I knew this was coming – I should cope much better than this. What’s wrong with me?” But it doesn’t work like that. The grieving process isn’t a military operation: you can’t plan to recover by such and such a date, or grieve at a certain pace and in a certain way.

Fear and the Sense of Abandonment

Even the most self-reliant can be reduced to a childlike state by the death of a parent. Some feel their body shrink to child size as they stand by their father’s corpse. Others feel cold or frightened in a way they’ve never experienced before.

For many, no matter what their age, their parents form a kind of safety net. And that remains true even after they become the carer. No one ever loves you with the same pure, simple, unconditional love. And that love becomes a buffer or barrier between you and harsh reality. The harshest of those realities is of course death itself. So long as an older generation exists, you feel insulated or protected. Once they are gone, you are next. They have made way for your generation, and soon you must make way for your children – a thought that often frightens people.

A sense of abandonment is also common. Even adults with grown up children may feel this way. The fact is you are never too old to be an orphan. People are usually embarrassed by such thoughts and tend to keep them to themselves. As a result, every adult assumes he’s the only one to feel abandoned and afraid.

When you lose your parents, you must reach out to others. As with so many traumas, the temptation is to withdraw. But now more than ever you need reassurance that good people exist, people who love and care about you. Be careful not to drive them away with your bitterness and anger. You are not the only one to lose your parents; plenty of children lose both parents before they are out of their teens. Also, don’t be ashamed to admit how you feel. Men are especially guilty of this. A middle-aged man loses his mother and is utterly devastated. But he keeps it to himself because he fears appearing soft or weak. After all, he thinks, if I grieve too deeply they’ll think I’m a ‘mama’s boy’. It is this kind of ridiculous, macho nonsense that explains why, though women are twice as likely to suffer from depression, men are far more likely to kill themselves.

It may sound like ‘Hippy’ talk, but you could try reconnecting with nature. In a sense, the natural world is our true parent. When people lose their mother and father, they feel cold and alone. Tribal people experience this differently because they feel a deeper identity with nature. Their parent’s die, and soon they will die, but the living world, of which they are a part, goes on. So get out into nature. And when you do, fully immerse yourself: swim in the sea, look up at the stars, sit in the woods and meditate, etc., and you may find a new sense of healing and connection.


Guilt is a major part of grief, but it is especially common when you lose your parents. You can see the difference when your grandparents die. Children often have a simpler, happier relationship with their grandparents than with their parents. And when they die, there tends to be little guilt. But with one’s parents it is different. People think back to the many times they hurt them: the bitter rows, the worry they caused, and so on.

If your parents made it to a great age, you may feel guilty for not seeing them enough. Another common reason is moving too far away. The child moves to a new country, and shortly after their father suddenly dies. Their mother is now alone, but they cannot return as their children are settled and their partner doesn’t want to go back. They phone and Skype, but it isn’t the same. And they aren’t even there at the end.

Whatever the cause of your guilt, be very careful how you handle it. Guilt is a horrible feeling and one people often seek to displace. Imagine a woman called Sarah who lives in Ireland with her partner and 12-year-old son. One day her husband announces that he has been offered a new job in the firm’s Canada branch. He will be paid twice as much, and the family decide it is too good to turn down. So they leave.

Shortly after arriving, her mother breaks a hip, and a few months later she develops diabetes. Over the following two years she goes into physical and mental decline. But Sarah’s son is settled in his new school, and her husband loves his new job. She can’t return to Ireland, she reasons, and so makes do with phone calls instead. One day a neighbor phones to say that her mother was discovered dead. Sarah is consumed with guilt. She ought to have returned. How could she leave her mother to die like that? Gradually the guilt turns to rage. It isn’t my fault, she thinks, it’s my husband’s fault – and my son’s. I told them I was worried, and they took no notice. They just didn’t care. All they were concerned with was their new life.

Sometimes the guilt is justified, sometimes not. For example, you may have married someone your parents disliked. And they may never have let you forget this. But it was your life, not theirs. Your parents did you wrong if they made you feel guilty. They may have disapproved because they feared you being hurt, but that is different. If they disapproved out of petty snobbery, you have no reason to feel ashamed.

Whatever the reasons for your guilt, this is something you must work through, ideally with a bereavement counsellor. When grieving, guilt is usually the last emotion to go, so be patient.

Finally, in order to avoid deepening your guilt be sure not to dishonor their memory. If your parents were people of principle, stick to those principles. If you do not, you will feel more distant from them than ever. By keeping to what they taught you, and even putting those principles into action, you remain close. When people talk of “feeling their father’s presence,” what they often mean is that they lived what he taught.

Above all, do not feel ashamed. Losing your parents is one of the worst experiences in life, so don’t expect to get over it any time soon. And never forget that you are not alone – everyone goes through this.

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Mark Goddard, Ph.D.

Mark Goddard, Ph.D. is a licensed psychologist and a consultant specializing in the social-personality psychology. His publications include magazine chapters, articles and self-improvement books on CBT for anxiety, stress and depression. In his spare time, he enjoys reading about political and social history.

*The views expressed by Mr. Goddard in this column are his own, are not made in any official capacity, and do not represent the opinions of his employers.

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