Death of a parent

Posted on: August 14th, 2012 by Hope And Cope No Comments

The death of a parent can be an upsetting, though not entirely unexpected, event in life. While most of us expect our parents to die before us, that does not erase the difficulty of the experience. Both young children and adult children are greatly impacted by the death of a parent. The impact may differ depending on the age of the child when the loss occurs, and there are varying issues to consider when a parent dies.

Death of a parent can be especially difficult for children that are minors. The loss of a parent can cause severe grief and stress reactions in young children, and the support of adults is extremely important. Children that rely on their parents as caretakers, and primary attachment figures, suffer immediately following the loss of a parent. Bereaved young children are at greater risk of physical, psychological, and social problems. Those that are under five years old, and in early adolescence, are especially vulnerable to adjustment difficulties following the death of a parent. This risk is largely due to the fact that they are at ages where parental involvement is extremely vital in development. Parents really nurture the physical, psychological, and social formation of children at these ages. It can take time to restructure life without the deceased parent, and find someone to fill in the gaps.

Those who lose parents as young children may continue to feel the negative effects into adulthood. Due to the loss of such an important figure, they may lose self-esteem. This loss of self-esteem has been shown to result in lower self-confidence as an adult (when compared to children with parents who remained alive and living together). Children whose parents die when they are young are also at greater risk for depression as adults. Again, this is likely due to the loss of social and emotional support. It is significant to keep in mind that the death of a parent in childhood does not mean one is doomed to poor outcomes as an adult. However, it is imperative to increase support following a loss to prevent negative future consequences.

Even if the death of a parent is more expected in adulthood, it frequently impacts one’s functioning. Though parents typically are no longer primary sources of daily, physical and emotional support in adult children, they remain important sources of social support. Many adult children continue to have a strong bond with their parents. If an adult child has a particularly close relationship with their parent before their death, the death will likely be more difficult to process and grieve. The child must grieve the loss of a parent and a confidante.

When adult children are coping with the loss of a parent, they gain strength by sharing their loss experience with family. Other family members will grieve the death as well, and can provide support. Families often reorganize their structure after the death of a parent to accommodate for roles the parent may have held. These roles can include story teller, family connector (one who keeps everyone in the family connected and communicating), advisor, and sounding board. Other family members may step up to assume these roles, and help maintain equilibrium within the family.

Many adult children also consider what they would like to pass on to future generations of the family once a parent dies. They may reassess their values and goals for their children. Once they look at their values, they may make behavioral changes to better reflect these values.

Partners can help adult children grieve in a more healthy and productive way. Partners can help the adult child take care of logistical issues immediately following the death. Many adult children feel a sense of duty and obligation, and need to make funeral and burial arrangements. Partners can help make phone calls and run errands. Partners may also recognize if the grief being experienced by an adult child is hindering their daily functioning. They may take the role of sustaining the daily routine the family requires (for example, cooking for children, doing chores, paying bills, etc.). Though they may pick up the slack for a while, eventually they help bring the grieving child out of their preoccupied state. If the adult child is having particular difficulty moving past the loss of their parent, a partner may help remind the person of life, their current obligations, and living in the moment.

Research has shown that women are better equipped than men at coping with stressful unforeseen events. This means that they often deal with the loss of a parent in more effective ways than men. This is not to say that men cannot cope with the loss of a parent, but women are more likely to use positive coping (i.e., seeking social support, talking about the loss, processing their emotions) than men. Men are more likely to engage in risky behaviors (like drinking more alcohol, using drugs, and becoming more isolated) in their grief, as a means of escaping emotional pain. For this reason it is vital to look for signs of poor coping in adults after the loss of a parent.

Grieving the loss of a parent can be a difficult, but not impossible task. When helping children who are grieving a parent, it is vital to share information and openly express feelings around them. This openness helps children adapt to the loss in a healthy way. Encourage children to communicate their thoughts and feelings about the death so they do not feel as if they have to avoid talking about their parent, but can keep realistic memories alive. Most children who are bereaved by the death of a parent experience the resolution of their grief within one year of the death. This shows that they can adapt and move on in their lives in spite of tremendous loss. Adults who grieve the loss of their parents often report they feel a sense of strength after coping with the loss. They also frequently strengthen the connections they have with their own nuclear family members.

Remember, seeing a mental health professional for group and/or individual therapy can be a helpful and healthy way to help you and your family process your loss.

Here are some other links that may be helpful:

http://www.cancercare.org/publications/68-helping_yourself_as_you_cope_with_the_loss_of_a_parent

http://hospicecareonline.org/images/pdfs/education/adult_loss_of_a_parent.pdf

Some books that may be helpful:

http://www.amazon.com/Miss-You-First-Look-Death/dp/0764117645/

http://www.amazon.com/Orphaned-Adult-Understanding-Coping-Parents/dp/0738203610/

 

 

 

References

Costa, L. & Holliday, D. (1994) Helping children cope with the death of a parent. Elementary School Guidance and Counseling, 28 (3), 245-262.

 

Gray, L.B., Weller, R.A., Fristad, M. & Weller, E.B. (2011). Depression in children and adolescents two months after the death of a parent. Journal of Affective Disorders, 135, 277-283.

 

Mack, K.Y. (2001) Childhood family disruptions and adult well-being: the differential effects of divorce and parental death. Death Studies, 25,419-443.

 

Melhem, N.M, Porta, G., Shamseddeen, W., Payne, M.W. & Brent, D.A. (2011) Grief in children and adolescents bereaved by sudden parental death. Archives of General Psychiatry, 68 (9), 911-919.

 

Petersen, S. & Rafuls, S.E. (1998). Receiving the scepter: the generational transition and impact of parent death on adults. Death Studies, 22 (6), 493-524.

 

Raveis, V., Siegel, K. & Karus, D. (1999). Children’s psychological distress following the death of a parent. Journal of Youth and Adolescents, 28 (2), 165-180.

 

Rostila, M. & Saarela, J.M. (2011). Time does not heal all wounds: mortality following the death of a parent. Journal of Marriage and Family, 73 (1), 236-249.

 

Umberson, D. & Chen, M.D. (1994). Effects of a parent’s death on adult children: relationship salience and reaction to loss. American Sociological Review, 59 (1), 152-168.

 

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