When you are a young adult, in your 20s, 30s, or 40s, it can feel strange to lose a parent, whether it’s expected, because of long-term illness, or unexpected and sudden. Even if your parent was sick for a while, it doesn’t prepare you for death and grief. Perhaps your parent was young and physically active and the death was unexpected. Or there may have been a big age gap and you have older parents – it can still feel strange to be young and grieving their loss. The death of a parent when you are young can feel even more strange when your grandparents lived to an old and passed away when your own parents were in a later stage of life. It can feel unfair that you weren’t given the privilege to have your parent(s) around for the majority of your own life the way they might have had. When you lose a parent in your 20s, 30s, or 40s, it can bring up unexpected feelings and thoughts about your parent, yourself, and your worldview.
Grieving a Parent When the Relationship Was Complicated
Parent/child relationships can be difficult. You’re not always on the same page or perhaps have different values. If there are difficulties or riffs, sudden loss can add to the challenge of grieving, especially with unresolved conflict.
Grief can get complicated when the relationship wasn’t picture-perfect. You may be struggling with guilt – guilt from focusing on your own life, moving away, prioritizing your career or family over your parents’ needs. Maybe you feel as though you didn’t call or visit them enough. This can be especially true if you are in your 20s and you’ve recently moved away from home, whether to pursue college, graduate school, or a new job. Sometimes when a parent is chronically ill, loved ones distance themselves as the parent’s condition worsens. You might not even realize you are doing it, but you likely do it to protect yourself emotionally. It can be incredibly painful to watch a parent decline. These are real feelings and they are valid, but don’t harbor guilt. These are all normal occurrences and you shouldn’t blame yourself. You have every right to live your life and prioritize your needs, particularly as you transition into adulthood, independence, or starting your own family.
Existential Thoughts and Concerns
The death of a parent often brings up unexpected existential concerns and feelings, including facing your own mortality. Most people don’t think about death in their 20s and 30s. You never expected to be faced with the idea that you have become the oldest generation in your family at a young age. Death feels closer than it did before. Or you imagine your life and your parents’ life following a typical life expectancy. In your 20s, 30s, and 40s, we imagine having our parents around for another 20 years or so until they are in their 80s or 90s.
Common existential feelings and concerns include:
- Realizing your parent won’t ever be a grandparent or watch your own children grow up.
- Thinking you should have kids as soon as possible so the other living parent will have a chance to be a grandparent.
- Guilt that you didn’t have kids already.
- Sad for your children that they won’t have that grandparent around.
- Feeling inadequate with where you are in your life and what you have accomplished (comparing yourself to your parent).
- Concerned about your own mortality in young adulthood.
- Having to step in to help parent or financially support a younger dependent sibling who might still be a minor and/ or in school.
- Developing the need to be overprotective over your living parent due to possibly fearing the risk of losing this parent sooner than you might imagine or at a younger age.
When you’re in your 50s or older, some of these existential thoughts might not be as prevalent or less likely a primary concern. However, this may not be the case for all as everyone’s circumstances can vary.
How the Loss of a Parent Changes People’s Roles
The Role of Your Parent
The role of parents is different when you are in your 20s, 30s, or even 40s as opposed to older adults who may be more established or independent. Whatever your parent did for you, there are unique factors that apply to younger adults that can complicate grieving.
Parents, even if you are an adult, still provide for their children. If you saw or talked to them everyday, now you don’t have that person to confide in or to support you. Do you rely on your parent for child care? Do they provide emotional support when it comes to dating? They may have offered emotional or financial support as you start college or a new career. When you are in your 20s, you may still be relying on your parents to learn how to be an adult, and now you have to figure that out on your own. Was your parent the leader, the glue, or the communicator in the family? That is a big loss that has a long-lasting effect. Do family gatherings stop? Do they continue? Is there a rift in the family now?
Your Role in the Family
When a parent dies, there’s usually a big gap in roles and responsibilities that need to be taken on. Who takes on that role next? How does that get decided? If you are an only child, a lot may fall on your shoulders. If you have siblings, who steps in? Are you the responsible one and have to take over? If you were your parent’s caregiver, you now don’t have that responsibility anymore. How will your role in the family change if you are no longer a caregiver to that parent?
Your role can now include instilling your parent’s values and positive attributes into your own family, or trying some of your parent’s hobbies and interests and sharing them with your partner, children, or other family members.
The Roles of Other Family Members
Identify your role and the roles of other family members and how they have shifted or need to shift to maintain traditions. You can make the conscious decision to fill in that parent’s role or not, or the roles of each person in the family may shift organically. Do you have siblings, another parent, or aunts and uncles who can fill the role your parent had? Who can take on that role to bridge the gap? If your parent had multiple roles, it doesn’t have to be just one person who has to take that all on. It can be divvied up among multiple people (and not just family – look to friends for support too).
How to Heal When Grieving a Parent
The death of a parent is never easy, but can be even more difficult and present its own unique complexities when you are a young adult. You deserve to heal and grieve fully. Here are some tips to help you get through this difficult time:
Be aware of the 5 stages of grief:
There is no particular order to how these stages occur and you may not go through all of them. They can last for different lengths of time or switch back and forth.
Being mindful that the stages exist doesn’t mean grief won’t be painful. Acknowledge the reality of your parent’s death and your pain. But make sure the grief doesn’t make you stuck – that you can move forward to heal. You’re not trying to change, fix, or fight what happened, but do not let it hold you back from eventually moving forward. Give yourself time to grieve – don’t rush it. Everyone has a different timeline of grief.
Have a Support System
When grieving, it’s important to have a support system around you. As stated above, it’s not just family members who can support you. If you have friends who have also lost a parent in their young adulthood they may be willing to give you support as well.
A therapist or grief counselor can also be a part of your support network. Therapy is especially helpful if you are going through existential changes and questioning aspects of your life.
Joining a grief support group can be helpful with not feeling alone through the grieving process and to connect with others who are experiencing a similar loss.
Allow Yourself to Feel
Whatever you are feeling, allow yourself to feel it. Express yourself, cry, scream. There may be lots of things that trigger you to cry – a smell, picture, song, etc. It’s ok. Be patient with your feelings, observe them, be aware, and talk about them openly.
Prioritize Your Grief and Healing
Sometimes when one parent dies, adult children will prioritize the needs of the remaining living parent to make sure they can make it through. They often give themselves little space to grieve, especially if they have children of their own. Give yourself time to grieve and take care of yourself. Listen to what you need, set boundaries, and do what feels right for you. Show yourself compassion.
Keep Your Parent’s Memory Alive
Reflect on your parent’s life and accomplishments. What did they love? What brought them joy? What mattered most to them? How can you apply those to your own life? Find ways to keep their memories alive through the generations – your own children, nieces/nephews, etc. so they get to know that person. Keep up with their traditions or start new ones that honor them.
Enjoy Life and Keep Moving Forward
When grieving a parent in your 20s, 30s, or 40s, you realize that life is short. So do what you can to take care of yourself and enjoy your life now. Spend time with those you love and doing what you love. Living life to the fullest is a beautiful way to honor your parent and his/her legacy. If you are struggling to find hope and joy after the loss of a parent, therapy can empower you to accept their loss, honor your parent’s memory, and heal so you can enjoy life again. If you live in Florida or New York, contact Dr. Heather Violante online or call (754) 333-1484 to learn more.