Why Losing a Parent Makes You Feel Like a Child — Even When You’re All Grown Up
The day I became a parent, I made a solemn vow to never say these four words to my children:
“Someday when I’m gone………….”
At 27, I was young enough to remember recoiling when my parents said that. Was it a threat? An ultimatum? A guilt trip for blowing them off when they, on the other hand, would happily drop anything to spend time with me?
Today, at 64, despite my commitment to avoid making the same mistakes as my parents, I often catch myself saying or thinking some version of:
And the most painful of all:
Losing a parent when we’re young enough to still need their hands-on care is like being adrift in the ocean without a lifejacket. For babies, toddlers, and children, it’s a matter of life and death. But even as teenagers, young adults and beyond, we continue to cast parents in the role of provider, protector, teacher, role model, advocate and source of unconditional love. They may not be our first call for help; if anything, they may be our last resort. After all, who wants their parents to know that they’ve lost their job, are struggling with a divorce, dealing with depression, or can’t pay the utility bill? Leaning on them makes us feel small. Plus, there’s those pesky invisible strings attached. On the other hand, it’s reassuring to know that they’re there when we need them, even if we don’t.
Even as an adult, our parents are often sources of wisdom and advice. The first person you call when you need to know how to do something they made seem so effortless when you were younger and the one you turn to when you want to share good news about your family. Even when you're a parent yourself, you'll find yourself calling or texting your own mom and dad to share important news. It’s these little interactions that suddenly cease when our parents are gone that make the loss so poignant.
Fortunately, most of us are raised by perfectly imperfect parents (there will always be great parents, good parents, and sadly, parents whose passing may come as a welcome relief), but for most of us, a parent’s death is devastating. Our relationship may be relatively unencumbered or fraught with the usual conflicts that make families an emotional minefield, but as sure as the sun will rise, someday they’ll be gone. And when that day comes, whether we’re five, twenty-five, or fifty-five, we’ll miss them more than we ever could have imagined.
But All Parents Die
The fact that all parents die doesn't matter. Reminding kids that parents won’t be around forever is a flawed strategy, about as effective as texting Google images of dentures to get them to floss their teeth. “Someday” means nothing to a twenty-year-old; it’s decades down the road, besides, who wants to think about their parents dying? But even full-grown adults are blindsided by the magnitude of losing a parent. We know it’s inevitable; we think we’re prepared, especially if we’ve been actively involved in a parent’s aging process: witnessing their decline, providing physical and emotional support, perhaps even being primary caregivers as they begin the descent toward their final departure. I spent the last seven years of my mother’s life in a locked dementia ward, caring for her like a baby. Yet despite witnessing this brilliant, vital woman reduced to an infantile state, in a very real way, she was still my mother and I was still her child, even as she took her last, labored breath, cradled in my arms.
Why is losing a parent such a surprisingly gut-wrenching trauma? The shock is in the disconnect between intellectual awareness and emotional reality. Parents are a preexisting condition. They’re the one constant in our lives, making it difficult to grasp the idea that they won’t be around forever. All loss involves a recalibration of reality as we slowly integrate the permanence of our loved one’s absence. Whether it’s a child (God forbid), partner, friend, sibling, or anyone else we’ve formed a deep attachment to, grief takes a palpable toll. But there’s something about losing a parent-becoming the proverbial “motherless child,” that shakes us to the core in a way unlike any other loss.
The Most Universal Loss
The opening sentence in a *blog recently published on fatherly.com, drives home the profound, psychological damages inherent in losing parents, describing it as “the closest thing humanity has to a universal emotional experience. We don’t all have children, siblings, a partner or best friend. But everyone has-or at some point, had-a parent. When we lose them, we quite literally feel lost. Picture the terror on the face of a child separated from a parent in a crowded shopping mall; fast forward the clock, and it’s not unusual to experience a similar sense of emptiness and abandonment, along with sadness, anger, guilt, anxiety, remorse, and regret, which, according to bereavement experts, typically lasts at least a year. Or longer.
A few weeks ago, I was on my way home in an Uber. I asked the driver where he was from. “Somalia.” “Do you still have family there?” “No,” he replied, “My father died.” I offered condolences to which he replied, ““It will be eight years this Tuesday.” I happened to be coming home from Temple after saying “Kaddish,” the Jewish mourners’ prayer, on the eighth anniversary of my father’s passing. A coincidence of synced grief transcending cultural divides.
As I’ve seen friend after friend share their grief on social media, posting tributes, photographs and memories, it becomes increasingly apparent that being an adult in no way diminishes the pain of losing a parent. If anything, it intensifies it.
Reading aloud an essay about growing up on a farm in rural Iowa, Sam, a weathered, 70-year-old, retired Vietnam Vet and writing group participant, visibly tears up describing the homemade waffles his father made every Saturday mornings. A close friend who prides herself on “having it all together,” confides clutching her pillow, sobbing, “I just want my Mommy,” after being diagnosed with stage 4 Lymphoma. The most common sentiment on bereavement sites for grieving grown-ups mourning a parent’s death are: “I’ve lost my best friend.” Or, “My father was my hero.” Along with various iterations of actress, Lillian Hellman’s famous quote: “It took nearly five years of her being dead for me to realize I loved my mother.”
There are numerous reasons for the direct relationship between stage of life and depth of sorrow. As we age, we become more aware of our fragility and increasing need for support, which we loathe imposing on our children. Instead of needing our parents less, we may feel their absence more keenly, especially if we’re dealing with divorce, mourning the loss of a spouse (or life partner), coping with serious illness or feeling estranged from our children as they focus on careers, parenting, and other competing demands that limit their availability. We may be mature adults, even card-carrying members of AARP, but the human longing for security, to hear Goodnight Moon as we drift off to sleep, may kick in with the increasing vulnerability of age and infirmity.
The feeling of responsibility for our aging parents may be delayed while both parents are still alive. The death of a parent typically results in feelings of responsibility for the one who’s survived. On top of our own bereavement, we may feel called upon (and yes, obligated) to assume a more central role in their lives, from providing increased physical, emotional, and financial support, all the way to be a primary companion, which is a double-edged sword. Our grief may be temporarily mitigated by the satisfaction of feeling needed, while simultaneously feeling resentful and overwhelmed. I will be forever grateful for the time I had with my father during the final years of his life. His death left a lasting hole in my heart. It also left me feeling slightly astray, having spent so much time and energy laser focused on his health and well-being.
Midlife Orphans: A Growing Phenomenon
The moniker “midlife orphan,” is a relatively new label for a generation in which technology has extended the average life span, so that it’s not uncommon for a 60-year-old first time grandmother to mourn the loss of her 85-year-old mother’s death, who missed meeting her first great-granddaughter by just four days. A chaplain working in aftercare describes consoling a bereaved 70-year-old, married 42 years, who confesses to feeling “totally alone in the world” after burying his 95-year-old father.”
When our parents live to or beyond life expectancy, we feel grateful for having had them in our lives for so long. Which also makes us miss them that much more. We count our blessings, alongside a litany of losses that comes of them having been such an important and unique part of our lives. At the same time, we may be experiencing our own health issues while grieving their loss or trying to care for the remaining parent, making the process that much more difficult.
These six factors help explain why midlife orphans are hit especially hard by the loss of parents.
- They are the keepers of our history. Who but your parent remembers your first word, your first visit from the tooth fairy, what you wore on the kindergarten bus, the name of the mean girl who didn’t invite you to her birthday party (who she never forgave), your first crush, why you were grounded that particular summer, the look on your face when you opened the letter saying you’d been accepted to college…...I could go on and on.
- They are the link to our ancestors. If they’re our genetic parents, they’re in our DNA, which is almost too profound a concept to ponder, except to say that after the death of a parent, it’s common to look in the mirror, searching for traces of resemblance: Our hands are a perfect replica of our mom’s. We hear our father's words ringing in our ears. Our daughter rises with the sun just like our mother did. Our son’s perfect pitch is a gift from his grandfather. Tracing genealogy-finding our place on the family tree-connects us to our lineage over time and space. As we become the elders, knowing our history takes on greater meaning.
- They are the single biggest influence during the most formative years of our lives. For better or worse, (some of us spend years in therapy wrestling with the “worse,”) a big part of who we are is a direct result of who our parents were and what they passed on. How they lived their lives-and how they affected ours-are deeply intertwined. As grown adults, the power struggles that are an inherent part of establishing a separate identity and claiming independence no longer eclipse our ability to appreciate how integral our parents really are.
- They gave us life and so much more. Which is easy to take for granted until we’re old enough to understand what it takes to be the guardian of another human being. Our parents may have succeeded in some ways, failed in some ways, but in retrospect, having faced our own imperfections, we can see that they did the best they could with what they were given. Hopefully, we mourn their passing at peace, having reconciled past conflicts and unfinished business. But time can also calcify wounds, leaving that much more scar tissue, in which case, our parents’ death may be an incentive to clean the slate (or as the old saw goes: “It’s never too late to have a happy childhood.”) Losing them may, paradoxically, free us to love them in a way we couldn’t when they were alive.
- A Taste of Unconditional Love There is, no-one-and I mean, no-one-who would throw themselves in front of a speeding train to save you, much less listen to every detail of what you’re taking for your nasal congestion. It gives “taking it personally” a whole new meaning. Which can feel invasive or loving, protective or overbearing, intrusive or concerned, but anyway you throw it, the relationship between parents and children is incredibly complex, rife with the potential for anger and disappointment. All of which comes from caring so much-probably too much. Loosely, unconditional love means loving you no matter what. It may be too much ask, but parents are as close as it gets-and we miss it when its gone.,
- The illusory curtain between Us and Mortality. As long as our parents are alive, our mortality is a generation away. With their death comes the sobering realization that there’s no longer anything standing between us and death (not that there ever was; anything can happen at any time to anyone). But still, the mere presence of a parent makes us feel a bit more secure and a little less conscious of aging. Even if only symbolically, as long as they’re alive, we are still somebody’s child. A parent’s death makes us acutely aware of the inescapable transition from this realm to the next. And, it forces us to face our own mortality, ripping open the curtain, destroying any shreds of denial or lingering fantasies of living forever. It’s the ultimate metaphor for the human condition: “No. Dorothy. There is no wizard.”
Someday, When We’re Gone____________________
If aging brings us closer to the end of life, it also gives us the opportunity to be more conscious of how we spend it. Once our parents pass, we may be grief stricken. But we also have more freedom to make choices we may have tabled for fear of upsetting or offending them. Now there’s no need to factor them into the equation. Right?
It should only be that easy. Ironically, bereaved adults have a greater tendency to consider their late parents’ opinions and values. We still want their approval. We still want to make them proud.
And we can. We never stop missing our parents, but once they’re gone, we may regret the ways we didn’t express our love. Start now:
Say thank you for the million and a half ways they gave of themselves so that you would have a better life. (Say it to yourself. In a journal or at their final resting place.)
Keep their memory alive with photographs, letters, their special recipe for chili (yours will never be as good) or by keeping their special trinkets around. Hand down their stories to preserve your ancestry.
Be grateful for the values, skills, and lessons they instilled that continue to serve you.
Notice the resemblances. The soft hazel eyes you inherited from your mother. The uncanny ability to draw that you share with you Dad.
Write down the questions you wish you could ask. Sibling or other relatives are great at filling in the blanks.
Make a contribution to their favorite charity and create a memorial that captures their essence.
Ultimately, we are our parents’ legacy. Honor your parents by being the kind of person who can genuinely say: “Without you, I wouldn't be half the person I am today.” Don’t wait until it's too late to tell them how much they mean to you, how much you love them and how much you appreciate everything they've done for you. Show them through actions that you care. Spend time with them. Call them. If they've already passed, honor their memory by talking about them, making their favorite recipes and visiting their favorite places. Remember everything that made them special and incorporate that into your own life.
* Quote from article by Joshua A. Krisch
Ellen Sue Stern is the author of 20 books, translated to fourteen languages, including LIVING WITH LOSS and I WILL NOT FORGET YOU, a nationally known speaker, writing coach and bereavement expert. Learn more about her at ellensuestern.com