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Losing a Parent as a Young Adult

Very few people have a relationship with their parents that is simple and utterly uncomplicated. In most cases, though, our parents are the people we’ve had the longest relationship with, the people who remember our birth and our first steps and who taught us to ride a bicycle, to play catch and to braid our hair.

From a child’s perspective, parents are often larger than life—they can do no wrong and are able to fix almost anything. We generally begin to see our parents’ faults and limitations as we get older, but our desire for comfort from our parents when we are sick or afraid often remains long into adulthood. We expect, therefore, that are parents will be there for us, even as we age. We envision them smiling at our weddings and playing with their grandchildren.

Like all human relationships, however, our relationships with our mothers and fathers are often complex. We might carry resentments from our childhood that we haven’t had the strength to address. We might still argue with our parents or find ourselves wishing for a relationship that doesn’t exist and never has.

When your parent dies, you lose not only the person who’s been with you your whole life, but also your children (or future children’s) grandparent. You lose the opportunity to work through hurt feelings or to say “I love you” one more time. When this loss occurs early in your adulthood, you might also find that people in your peer group don’t get it—they might be mourning the loss of their elderly grandparents while you wish your mother or father had lived past 60.

Here are some things that many people struggle with when a parent dies, especially when the death comes at a relatively young age.

Handling Practical Matters

When a parent dies, one or more children are often left to handle a number of practical matters, from arranging the burial to making sure electricity bills are paid on time to handling your parent’s estate. Navigating these practical matters can be both a burden and a blessing. The person chosen as executor of the estate has a lot of power in how the parent’s money is distributed, but also a lot of work. This can lead to resentment among siblings and can make it hard to make time for grief.

Changing Families

Nothing changes a family quite like the loss of a parent. Parents often define almost everything about family traditions, from how holidays are spent to preparing simple family meals. Some people will want traditions to go on unchanged, others will focus on creating new traditions. This can be especially challenging to navigate if you and the rest of your family don’t agree on how to create new traditions and/or how to honor your deceased parent in your new traditions.

Here are some of the specific family challenges that many people run into after their parent dies:

  • Disagreements about how to handle the parents’ estate. Arguments about how inheritance is handled can poison relationships between siblings as well as, in some cases, between them and the surviving parent or step-parent.
  • Resentment and/or guilt about how much or little caregiving you did for your parent while he or she was alive compared to how much your sibling(s) did.
  • Disagreements about what do to with the family home and/or any vacation homes.
  • Disagreements about organizing your mother or father’s memorial service and/or how to bury him or her.

In some cases, the death of a parent makes the rest of the family closer. In other cases, it tears the family apart, leading to irreparable damage to relationships between siblings and/or the surviving parent or step-parent. If the death of your parent is straining or destroying your relationship with the rest of your family, it creates secondary losses that you will mourn nearly as much as the parent’s actual death.

Working with a counselor can help you navigate these changes to your family structure as you mourn the death of your parent. I can also help you develop strategies to deal with family members you’re struggling with—whether it’s finding the right way to communicate your needs or feelings or deciding you need to keep that person out of your life for the moment.

Social Pressure to Carry On

In a society like ours, where average life expectancies are in the high 70s and low 80s, most people in their 20s and 30s will, in fact, still have two parents who are alive. If you’re not a member of that lucky crowd, however, you can find the experience of losing your parent isolating, since many of your peers and colleagues will have never experienced a similar loss.

You might feel pressure to be “back to normal” after a short bereavement leave, or find that friends expect you to be your usual, smiling self at a part two weeks after your parent’s death. Many people aren’t comfortable talking about death or mourning and you might find that people avoid asking about your loss even though it is very fresh in your mind.

Working with a counselor can help you find ways to re-enter your professional and personal life after your parent’s death. I can help you think about the best way to respond to questions about how you’re doing and think about the best ways to tell personal and professional contacts about your parent’s death.

Lost Opportunities

Whether your mother criticized your career choice or your father didn’t like your spouse, there’s rarely a parent-child relationship without both love and friction. You might have expected that you’d have time to smooth out the wrinkles in your relationship with your parent—when you were older and had more distance from your childhood. You may have wanted an opportunity to take care of your parent, but weren’t able to do so before his or her death. Perhaps your last conversation was strained or you didn’t make it home for the most recent holiday celebration.

Guilt and regret is common when a loved one dies. The complex nature of parent-child relationships, combined with our expectations that our parents will live to be elderly and the unconscious belief that they will always be around, because they always have been, makes guilt a pervasive issue for young people who have just lost a parent.

Working with a professional counselor can help you move through the grief associated with losing your parent and work on preserving your relationship with the rest of your family. I can help you understand how grief can affect your everyday live as well as help you develop techniques to prevent grief from becoming all-consuming. We’ll talk about ways to cultivate self-forgiveness and, if necessary, how to forgive your mother or father for his or her failings. I can help you find the confidence to explain your loss to others in your life.

There’s no right or wrong way to grieve the death of a parent. Everyone’s experience with grief is different, just like everyone’s relationship with their parents are different. I can help you find the best strategies—for you—to build new traditions, strengthen your relationships and continue with your life in a way that would be most beneficial for you.