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Losing a child – at any age – is a devastating experience for parents. It feels unnatural and “out of order” for a child to die first, and no one feels this strain more than the parents themselves. While this feeling is universal for all parents, those who are grieving the loss of an adult child face some unique challenges. Let’s look at a few of these challenges before reviewing key tips for processing grief.

senior woman hugging her elderly mother

Challenges Parents Face When an Adult Child Dies

Below, we will discuss 4 of the most common challenges you may face as you grieve the loss of your adult child. If you are experiencing something else, that’s okay. Every family situation is different and will come with its own set of challenges and concerns.

Challenge #1 – Misunderstood Grief

Unfortunately, when grieving the death of an adult child, it’s not uncommon for parents to face disenfranchised grief. This means that other people – family, friends, co-workers, society in general – may not fully understand the pain you’re feeling and may not know what to say or how to deal with it. In general, society has an easier time understanding the grief that comes from the death of a young child, so when the person is an adult child, they are less sure about how to react.

For instance, a well-meaning friend may say, “At least you had 30, 40, 50 years with your child.” While this comment was intended to comfort, it unintentionally makes light of the depth of pain you feel at the death of your adult child. While disenfranchised grief does not occur in every instance, it is something to be aware of as it can add an extra level of challenge to the grief journey.

Challenge #2 – Feelings of Guilt

For many parents going through grief, guilt is a common emotion (and a normal one!). You may feel guilty for many reasons, including feeling that you:

  • Didn’t do enough to help, or you missed the signs (if the death was related to suicide, substance abuse, drunk driving, or another similar reason)
  • Are separate and isolated (if you live far away and couldn’t be as present)
  • Should have been able to protect your child (whether this is realistic or not)
  • Somehow contributed to what happened

You may find yourself reviewing the details of your child’s death over and over, wondering if you could have done something to change what happened. While this review process is normal and your mind’s way of coming to grips with reality, be kind to yourself. The more you practice negative self-talk, the longer and harder the journey toward healing will be.

Adult daughter and father having tea while sitting on the couch

Challenge #3 – Loss of Support

Every family has different dynamics, and for some parents, the death of an adult child means a loss of support – whether that’s emotional, physical, or even financial. This is particularly true for aging or disabled parents, who may lean more heavily on their adult children for everyday care and support.

If this is your situation, you may find that you are not only dealing with feelings of grief but are also facing instability and insecurity in other areas of life. If this happens to you, consider reaching out to friends and family who can help bring more physical and financial security to your life. That way, you have the foundation you need to work through the emotional aspects of your loss.

Challenge #4 – Isolation

As parents, you want to take care of your children and grandchildren. Because of this protective instinct, you may prioritize the grief of your child’s spouse or children over your own feelings of loss. While it’s admirable to offer comfort and support – and you should – try not to neglect your own needs. You’ve lost a child, and your feelings are just as valid and legitimate. Be open about your needs. Don’t suppress what you feel. If you do, you may unintentionally isolate yourself and open the door to deeper feelings of sadness or depression. Care for yourself even as you take care of others.

Mother and son smiling together

Tips for Healing After Loss

Now that you are familiar with some of the most common challenges that grieving parents face, you can be on the lookout for them. Next, let’s discuss a few suggestions for how you can move toward healing.

Give Yourself Time

Grief doesn’t come with a formula or a handbook. It’s a day-by-day journey, working through your thoughts and emotions with intentionality and purpose. It’s going to take time, and that’s normal and right. Don’t rush yourself. While you will never “get over” the loss you’ve gone through, you can learn how to move forward with meaning and purpose.

Participate in Healing Actions

One of the most effective tools for grieving is to participate in healing activities, like journaling, visiting special places, creating memorial keepsake items, writing a letter saying the things left unsaid, or whatever else makes sense to honor your child’s life. Each time you participate in a meaningful action, it will soothe your spirit and help you work through the emotions building inside.

Adult son hugging his mother, both smiling

Let Others Help You

During times of grief, it’s common to self-isolate. While taking time to be alone is valuable and important to the grief journey, remember to also speak out what’s going on inside your heart and mind. Whether you talk with a friend, family member, therapist, or grief support group, it’s important to get things outside yourself. Not only is this practice essential to healing, it will help your friends and family understand where you’re at and how they can support and love you through the journey.

Take Care of Yourself

If you are like many people, you may be tempted to “stay busy” as a way of avoiding your grief. It feels like a good idea in the short term, but in the long run, this tactic won’t help you heal. That said, do the things that must be done but don’t be afraid to adjust your responsibilities for a time. This will ensure that you have time to take care of yourself – mentally, emotionally, and physically.

Father with adult son, laughing together

What’s Next?

Now that you are familiar with some challenges you may face and have learned several healing tips, it’s time to do the work of grief. Dr. Alan Wolfelt, a nationally recognized grief counselor and educator, puts it this way:

Someone you love has died. In your heart, you have come to know your deepest pain. From my own experiences with loss as well as those of the thousands of people I have counseled over the years, I have learned that we cannot go around the pain of our grief. Instead, we must learn to embrace and express it. This is hard but absolutely necessary work.

While it may be difficult right now to fathom a future where your pain lessens, it will come. And if healing feels disloyal or wrong, remember that healing doesn’t mean you forget. On the contrary, you will NEVER forget your child’s life and the joy they brought you. Healing is about honoring their memory in beautiful ways, about keeping their memory alive, and about embracing the joy of life for as long as you have it. Blessings to you on the journey.

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