Orphaned in Adulthood: Grieving the Loss of Your Parents

Woman visits her parents' graveThe death of a parent is a loss like no other. Our relationships with our parents shape the fiber of who we are. Without them in our lives, a significant piece of our identity may irrevocably change. When unresolved feelings or even estrangement remains, the loss of one’s parents can be even more complicated.

Becoming an adult orphan can be one of the hardest life transitions a person can experience. For me, the loss of my dad felt like the end of an era and the loss of my moral anchor. It was as if I had entered a new level of adulthood. A new path needed to be forged, and all of the familiar guideposts had suddenly shifted.

I often felt adrift and lost. My father’s presence in my life was enormous, and in his absence I struggled to fill the void. I often felt anxious and afraid. Whom would I go to now for the unconditional love only my father could provide? Who could answer my questions about the past? I did not feel ready to be the keeper of the family wisdom; that was his job. Ready or not, in many cases the death of a parent forces you to assume a new role or responsibility within the family.

Losing your parents can cause you to question your identity. One woman I work with in the therapy room whose father had recently died wondered aloud if she was still a daughter. The answer was and is yes, but in a different way. Our relationships with our parents live on in our hearts, minds, and memories.

Our parents live on in the way we honor their impact on our lives, traditions, and family rituals. For some adult orphans, the transition may mean the loss of a family home, mementos, and other treasured things. The responsibility to manage final tasks, as painful as they may be, can also be an important part of the mourning process.

Our parents live on in the way we honor their impact on our lives, traditions, and family rituals.

For many, losing our parents means losing a sense of safety and security. It may mean losing people—perhaps even the only people—who loved you unconditionally, who were your biggest supporters, and who occupied the greatest space in your life. Their presence in your life may be matched only by their absence. The loss can feel overwhelming.

Navigating this loss may take time, support, and patience. It may redefine your life and reshape it, perhaps even changing your priorities. You may find yourself suddenly more aware of the importance of documenting family gatherings and traditions. You may also have a deeper appreciation for the things that create these traditions, such as family photos, recipes for special occasions, or assembling holiday decorations.

There’s no “right way” to cope with the loss of one’s parents. However, the following suggestions and reminders can be helpful as you navigate this unfamiliar emotional landscape.

  • Be gentle with yourself. The death of a parent is hard. If possible, give yourself as much time to grieve as needed without the additional stress of work or other life demands.
  • Pace yourself. The tasks associated with arranging services, sorting through possessions, and handling the estate can be emotionally exhausting and simultaneously healing. Do what you can, focus on the things that must be done, ask for help when needed, and accept the support of loved ones and friends.
  • Prioritize rest and eating well. Sleep might be difficult to come by, but without proper rest and nourishment, your body and mind cannot function well.
  • Make time for self-care. Exercise and activities such as yoga or meditation can help manage the stress that comes with grief and loss.
  • Reach out to others who are also grieving. Connect with other family members affected by the loss, or consider joining a local support group. The support of others who have recently experienced loss may help you feel less alone.
  • Use your loss to help others. You may find comfort, for example, in donating a parent’s clothing or belongings to charity.
  • Keep the past present. Consider reinstating a tradition of your parents as a way to honor and remember them.
  • Contact a therapist. If the pain of grieving becomes too great, seek the support of a compassionate mental health professional. Many therapists and counselors specialize in supporting the bereaved.

© Copyright 2016 GoodTherapy.org. All rights reserved. Permission to publish granted by Deb Del Vecchio-Scully, LPC, NCC, DCMHS, therapist in Monroe, Connecticut

The preceding article was solely written by the author named above. Any views and opinions expressed are not necessarily shared by GoodTherapy.org. Questions or concerns about the preceding article can be directed to the author or posted as a comment below.

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  • Rachel

    Rachel

    March 4th, 2016 at 7:22 AM

    You would think that this loss would be easier to bear as an adult then it would be as a child, but I know that the feeling of loss is the same. Sure, you may have a little more capability of handling the pain as an adult,. but then there are always other questions that will fill your mind as an adult who has lost a parent, very different from if this had happened at a younger age. It never gets any easier to lose someone form your life who has meant that much to you over the years.

  • gabe

    gabe

    March 5th, 2016 at 7:32 AM

    I would say that for anyone unless you are completely estranged from your family it would never be an easy thing to lose a parent.
    For many of us these are the people who have known us since birth, have made us the person that we have become, and in so many instances know us better than anyone.
    When you lose that that is a void that can just never be filled by anyone else.

  • Christina G

    Christina G

    November 9th, 2017 at 8:17 PM

    I debate this topic alot with ppl. Ppl think because u dont have a relationship that it shouldnt be as difficult. Even when ur estranged from a parent u still go thru the same feelings. I know I did personally. I was thrown away like yesterday’s garbage at the age of 16. Not only did I have to deal with the feelings of abandonment n feeling lIke I was worthless & unloved. I also had to deal with the fact that I lost the only parental figures in my life. (Mother,Step father, and biological father). In the back of my mind I knew they were still here but as a young girl it felt like they weren’t. It definitely had a major effect on who I am as a person today. Sometimes it feels worse then mourning. With all the technology I would look at pics on fb, insta, etc and it brings up those very same feelings all over again…. and again,n again,n again… It’s enough to breaks someone’s soul if u don’t have addiquiet coping skills.

  • Deborah

    Deborah

    March 19th, 2018 at 10:32 AM

    I do relate, but I lost my Step Father, who adopted me as a young toddler. He was a “throw away” child of sorts that have him an empathy and love for children. I didn’t know I wasn’t his bio daughter till I was 13. I had always wondered if I was adopted and my Bio Mother, the abusive Step Mother. When he died, he was the last keeper of the truth of what happened to me. He was the last of unconditional love. He was the last voice of reason. He was the last protection in my family of origin. I am now totally estranged, again. As I stopped trying to be good enough, when I realized my mother’s value bar was subjective to her rage and need to cause pain. If you are going to be beaten you may as well enjoy the accused behaviors, before or after. I, also, pushed her buttons as she beat me, refusing to cower or show fear. Or just shut my mouth. She has never forgotten my derogatory, angry taunts on her character, behavior of parenting, I screamed into her face as she continually slapped my face. But, if course, I wouldn’t be quiet, but no one told me then: 1: Your Mother is broken and can’t love you. 2: You can never please her. 3: She is Narcissistic and you never criticized a narcissistic personality.

    So, I was very lost emotionally for awhile. Had so many conflicting messages from a childhood, that through therapy I had outgrown and I wasn’t going back. Plus, I had a Spiritual Relationship that I believed no matter what messages my bio parents planted, I was a living being born with a purpose and meaningful life. So sorry I bummed them out by my birth, but everyone can get over it, I am not their problem anymore and used my nightmare childhood to become something good to help other grow positively and in turn healing me. Using the example my Step Father and Maternal Grandmother, another Throw Away, gave me, along with their unconditional love. Realizing my mother disowning me (again, over 2 years so far this time) is really a blessing.

  • mel

    mel

    March 7th, 2016 at 6:44 AM

    To describe the loss of a parent as the end of an era, especially when now you don’t have one living parent left, I think that this is an appropriate phrase to use. It becomes more difficult to have those in your life who have this shared history with you, memories that no one else will ever be able to have or even understand their significance. It sort of leaves you feeling lost among a sea of well meaning people.

  • Teddy

    Teddy

    March 7th, 2016 at 3:33 PM

    So my real first thought is that if you are not grieving for them then there was probably a rift in the relationship

  • julia

    julia

    March 8th, 2016 at 7:51 AM

    I have always been so close to both of my parents that the thought of losing one of them, even though I know it is inevitable, it is really a pretty devastating thought to me.

  • Stacy

    Stacy

    March 8th, 2016 at 10:54 AM

    We lost both of our parents too early..as if there is a “good” time to lose them. I still have questions I would love to ask them..but I go on the information that they engrained in us..and pray, and hope I’m making the very best one.

  • L. M.

    L. M.

    March 8th, 2016 at 2:17 PM

    Need to read this 9 years ago

  • Tucker

    Tucker

    March 9th, 2016 at 11:30 AM

    I lost both of my parents in a car crash together and that was pretty tough. I think that maybe it would have been easier to only lose one but at the same time? It was hard on the whole family.

  • mandy

    mandy

    March 10th, 2016 at 10:55 AM

    This is the one thing that will never be simple, because for most of us this is losing such a huge part of our lives. Who else can we look at and say that through thick and thin they have always been there for you form the very beginning? It is a strange feeling to lose both of those people with whom you have such a shared history and who are such an integral part of the person that you are.

  • Dawn

    Dawn

    March 11th, 2016 at 4:18 PM

    I lost my daddy 6 months ago. He was truly a source of unconditional support and belief in me. He was the history keeper of our genealogy; and much of my identity.

  • Fred Shulman, Ph.D.

    Fred Shulman, Ph.D.

    March 12th, 2016 at 7:40 AM

    As an older parent ( 73 ) of 2 wonderful adopted daughters ( 18 and 21 ) I have tried to be a better parent for them, than my parents were for me ( alot of abuse ). I know that they will not have the longevity that I’d like to have with them and I am very conscious to give them the love, nurturing and encouragement that I never received enough of, certainly, more from my father, than from my mother. So to all parents reading this, remember, that our greatest legacy is our children and for whatever time we have left, we must try as hard as we can to give love to them… for that and that alone, is the greatest legacy of all.

  • Deborah

    Deborah

    March 19th, 2018 at 10:50 AM

    So well said and done. Similar historic childhood discription. Raised my 2 bio children, in positive, unconditional love enviorment. As college age “adults” , my offspring and we would jokingly say “you can’t eff up big enough to get out of this family, you have to die”, when they would make a bad choice. Now in their 30’s, happily having real marriages, and new babies, they have life me and their Father struggled through together, in love, both healing from our pasts.

  • Nola

    Nola

    March 12th, 2016 at 9:11 AM

    Being raised by my grandparents not my parents so I don’t know anything about losing them because they were never really a part of my life. But I do feel that way about Nanny and Pop and when they are gone I know that it will be a tremendous loss for me. I know that it will happen sooner rather than later given that they were already older but to me they are my only family and even though I think that I am prepared I know that I won’t really be until it happens.

  • RLW

    RLW

    March 19th, 2018 at 4:31 PM

    Yes, the grandparents. Tonight I received an email from this thread on a comment that someone posted and it led me to revisit the other posts too. I mentioned my father, his death in 2004 and my mom not feeling well. Since the last post mom continues to have issues. We relocated to a different city by choice together and it has been difficult. The stress has put us often at odds. I get upset and then feel horrible about it. I love her and yet I cannot ignore my judgement on a matter. This is the challenge- to live each day with love and sensitivity toward EACH OTHER for we do not know how long we have together. I have begun to struggle with the thought of losing her. An elder orphan, in my book, is definitive in meaning that they have no one else, no family of their own, just alone. I will be there at some point. I have joined a group to share with and grow relationships and found a great church too. In spite of it all we have to learn to live life to its fullest rather than isolate, if at all possible. Hang in there Scott.

  • dwight

    dwight

    March 14th, 2016 at 10:30 AM

    My brother still to this day lives off of my parents so I know that he will be unable to provide for himself when they are gone.
    I am not sure that this thought has ever really crossed his mind.

  • Kimberly

    Kimberly

    April 5th, 2016 at 8:13 AM

    If Heaven only had a phone… So many times I think “my mom will know”.. My dad will give me guidance..” Please… just a phone call..

  • Sara

    Sara

    December 2nd, 2016 at 7:31 AM

    I don’t know if im strange or if this is normal, but my dad will be gone 8 years on December 16, and this time of year has NEVER been the same. I have a lot of triggers through November and December that still leave me feeling ways mentioned above. Only a fraction if what it was the first year and each following, but is it normal to still have moments of extreme sadness around this time (and even cry)?

  • Megan A,

    Megan A,

    March 21st, 2018 at 5:57 AM

    I lost my only parent- my mom- almost a year ago (April 2017)- I was 33 – she was 66, and I have 3 children who miss her terribly, as do I. I am not the same since losing her and I struggle every single day. Although more time has passed for you, to answer your questions… yes. It NEVER goes away- it simply will evolve over time. There is no right or wrong, there is no time frame. Grief is limitless as are the lows that come with it….so cry and never wonder why- or if its normal because it is. Its cleansing at times too. xoxoxo

  • Stew C.

    Stew C.

    February 11th, 2017 at 2:22 PM

    My mother outlived my dad by three years. She died at the age of 93. I spent a lot of time with my mother over the past three years by taking her to doctors, stores, and visiting her at the assisted living facility and eventually memory care center. She would say dad knew you would take good care of me when I’m gone. I’d say to my mother in a joking way that dad sure knew what to say to put a bit of guilt in me to make sure I was on top of everything that was going on with you. It really wasn’t my dad’s assertion to my mother that made me care so much. I knew she needed someone and I knew there was no one else around. She was an important part of my life for so many years…and I felt the need to give back when she most needed to have someone to care for her and listen to her. She passed away in early January 2017 and I find myself with so much time to myself even with my work obligations. I have many pictures and videos of her on my cell phone and I watch them at least once a day. Makes her feel present to see the videos. I had her for 62 years…but the last three as I mentioned were the most intensive because of the many doctor visits, rehab of injuries, the shopping for supplies at Walmart, the many banking stops…etc. And finally hospice came to make it a bit easier for me and they removed much of her pain and I held her head on my shoulder as though she were my daughter and I told her that she was loved and we had conversations despite her moderate dementia. I sang songs I wrote in the courtyard of the facility and she’d sing and rock back and forth. We had a lot of time to talk about life and death and she was ready. I told her God would let her know when it was time because she kept asking me when she would pass. I didn’t leave anything out emotionally or in conversation or in action of doing things for her. The only regret was that I wish I could have been there in her final moments. So yes, I am an adult orphan and I have a family to be a dad and a husband and that’s how life moves on.

  • Scott

    Scott

    June 28th, 2017 at 2:10 PM

    I have recently become an adult orphan, having helped my mum to look after my dad, he died over eleven years ago, having been obviously ill. My mum then died in hospital waiting for a scheduled operation. I was still living at the family house and still am. I am constantly lonely and am finding it difficult to progress from here. I have had few personal relationships and am very concerned about the future of me.

  • Jackie

    Jackie

    January 29th, 2018 at 12:10 PM

    Scott… I completely understand. I lost my mother when I was 26 and my father when I was 32. I’m an only child. My life is a maze of emotions. Just stumbling through, hoping not to make too many mistakes. No one gets it unless they are going through it. Friends are well meaning, but so few can provide the emotional support I am seeking – so I keep it all to myself. I too am concerned about my future.

  • James

    James

    September 6th, 2018 at 8:39 PM

    Scott and Jackie: I really wish there was a way for me to contact both of you. My mom died 15 years ago. My dad died unexpectedly 5 weeks ago, I had been living with him the last 9 months taking care of him, not a big deal. I am an only child, never married. I am drowning in grief and feeling very alone. It is way too much for one person to deal with. I am also very fearful of my future. I don’t want to die from my grief.

  • The GoodTherapy.org Team

    The GoodTherapy.org Team

    September 7th, 2018 at 8:09 AM

    Hi, James. Thank you for sharing your comment. If you would like to consult with a mental health professional, please feel free to return to our homepage, http://www.goodtherapy.org/, and enter your zip code into the search field to find therapists in your area. If you’re looking for a counselor that practices a specific type of therapy, or who deals with specific concerns, you can make an advanced search by clicking here: http://www.goodtherapy.org/advanced-search.html

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  • Brad

    Brad

    December 5th, 2018 at 10:36 PM

    James, have you considered joining a grief group? Also, I read some good books on grief and journaled as well: Understanding Your Grief : Ten Essential Touchstones by Wolflet.. It has a companion journaling book. Also, the book: it’s OK to not be OK by Devine. It helps for me to write letters to my mom, who recently passed. It’s certainly doesn’t fix the grief or eliminate the pain, but it helps to express it.

  • Brad

    Brad

    December 5th, 2018 at 10:37 PM

    James, have you considered joining a grief group? Also, I read some good books on grief and journaled as well: Understanding Your Grief : Ten Essential Touchstones by Wolflet.. It has a companion journaling book. Also, the book: it’s OK to not be OK by Devine. It helps for me to write letters to my mom, who recently passed. It’s certainly doesn’t fix the grief or eliminate the pain, but it helps to express it.

  • Brad

    Brad

    December 5th, 2018 at 10:28 PM

    Scott, I can identify with how you feel. My mum recently passed away, and the existential loneliness I feel is extreme. I feel in moored.

  • RLW

    RLW

    August 15th, 2017 at 5:00 AM

    Great article. I lost my father 13 years ago. My mother is not feeling well and it concerns me. What makes it even more intense is that I have never married. They are/were all I have for family.

  • Mike S.

    Mike S.

    April 3rd, 2018 at 8:59 PM

    I lost my parents in early adulthood but never had the time to grieve as we were moving, changing jobs and trying to deal with our child’s changing school, etc. I am an only child, and It has haunted me ever since. But then my only child died suddenly and the circle was complete. We all were very, very close and the feelings are overwhelming, I dream often of my son. Now I am just waiting to cash in my ticket and get on to the next step.

  • Dale R.

    Dale R.

    November 2nd, 2018 at 4:08 AM

    It’s been a year now since my father passed away. It’s the hardest loss I’ve ever experienced. I don’t know why. Is it because I now have lost half my family I grew up with? Is it because I’m now an adult orphan? I’d never even considered that until I read about that. Is it because this loss could have brought back the painful cruel loss of my mother 17 years ago? She died a horrible death from post polio syndrome and dementia. She was reduced to only being able to verbalize my Dad’s name before she passed. Dad died from “complications” of Alzheimer’s. I can’t verbalize about his death or my feelings about it without getting choked up and it’s driving me nuts! My lovely wife tells me it’s ok, my daughter in law told me it’s natural. Is it masculine? Men aren’t allowed to show their emotions and vulnerability like women can. And after a year, it still hurts. My friend told me when your parent passes, your life is never the same, the world is different now, you just have to learn to live with that fact. That I can relate to. I’m questioning religion, my faith, why I believe, and is their evidence to substantiate my belief. I’m deathly afraid of getting old and losing my faculties. And I feel older.

  • Amy Y.

    Amy Y.

    February 19th, 2019 at 2:54 AM

    I lost my Mom when I was 14yrs old. I lost my Dad when I was 36. I never thought I’d be an adult orphan so soon. My 2 younger sisters and I took our Dad’s death really hard. It landed me in the hospital because I had an asthma attack from the shock of his unexpected passing. It has taken me 22yrs to barely be able to handle losing my Mother at a young age and then to lose my Dad, too. I feel so hollow sometimes. I have children of my own and a wonderful husband but there are times that the pain and sorrow of missing my parents gets to overwhelming.

  • Chris

    Chris

    June 21st, 2019 at 4:18 PM

    Just know that you are not alone. I lost my dad 10 years ago, and now my mom had a stroke and can no longer function or speak. I know she hasn’t passed yet but it’s been 4 months and the void is there, no one to talk to and no one to lean on. I am an only child and trying to take care of all the adulting that she used to, but its a nightmare. I hope someone finds this message comforting, you are not alone.

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