The 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
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