In life, there are certain milestones most of us will go through. Some, like leaving home, getting married, or having children are usually viewed as positives, but one of the most common milestones is also one of the most painful. Losing your parents is something almost all of us will experience at some point – and the death of a parent is undeniably one of life’s most significant and challenging rites of passage.
The term ‘orphan’ is generally applied to children who have lost their parents, but adults can become orphaned too. And one of the differences between child orphans and adult orphans is the way that society tends to view the loss. It’s widely accepted and recognised that when a child loses their parents, they experience a profound sense of grief and pain.
But as adults, it can feel like there’s a pressure to quickly deal with our grief, brush our pain away, and move forward with our lives. As any adult who has lost both parents knows, it’s nowhere near that easy. The fact that natural order dictates that parents should die before their children does nothing to soften the overwhelming grief, loneliness, and soul-searching that so often follows.
If you’ve lost your parents – and perhaps experienced the loss of both parents in quick succession – the enormity of the loss can be immense. In order to deal with the grief and make sense of the unfamiliar emotions that can emerge when your parents pass away, it’s important to be able to talk about what it means to be a midlife orphan, as well as how we can best cope with the experience.
The pain of losing your parents as adults
When we’re children, the fear that our parents will die and no longer be there for us is a primal one – and just because we’ve grown up doesn’t make the fear or pain any less real. But it isn’t just feelings of loss we experience when we become adult orphans. The loss of your second parent can shake your very foundations.
What can be so hard is the unspoken implication that we should be able to cope with the loss – particularly if our parents were elderly when they passed away. But even if your parents lived well into their nineties, had a good life and died peacefully, that doesn’t override the trauma of losing them – and the despair and loneliness that can often follow.
In some ways, as long as our parents are alive, part of us remains a child still. When we lose both parents, we’re suddenly thrown into a world where categorical adulthood is the only prospect. Losing both parents can also bring about a heightened awareness of our own mortality – because now we have become the eldest generation, and there’s no one in between ourselves and death. Realising we are next in line is a deeply unsettling emotion to deal with.
Another reason that the pain of losing your parents is so profound is not just because we lose our parents themselves, but often because we lose the role they played in our lives. We lose our caregivers, and the people we believed would always love us unconditionally. We also lose the people we may have used to turn to for advice and comfort, and the people we knew we could rely on in times of crisis.
And inevitably – and painfully – when we lose both parents, we also lose part of our past. In some ways, our parents are the keepers of our family memories. They’re the people who knew us as babies, children, teenagers, and young adults. Our parents are the ones who can look back through family pictures and old holiday photos and tell us the stories behind them.
When our parents are alive, our memories are recent; the last time we saw them, the most recent phone call. But when they die, the past can suddenly come rushing back, and we’re hit with old memories – some good, some bad – that can be consuming. We remember our parents when they were much younger, and we regret the questions we never got around to asking and the things we never said.
The familial impact of losing your parents
But losing both your parents doesn’t only affect the adult child left behind; it can have much wider implications on your family as a whole. Many adult orphans report shifting relationships among their remaining family, particularly among siblings.
In some cases, losing both parents can draw siblings together. It can strengthen relationships and mend rifts. When siblings lose both parents, they lose the same people – their own mother and/or father – and no one can really understand their experience in the same way. But of course, not all family experiences are so positive.
Bereavement is both physically and psychologically exhausting, and when you add in the stress of organising the funeral, sorting out the will, and going through your parents’ possessions, it’s easy for discord to surface. Resentment is another common emotion that some siblings feel, especially if they were more involved in caring for their parents towards the end.
Plus, parents are often the glue that holds a family together. Even when parents are old or ill, they’re what bring siblings together – and when they’re gone, it can seem as though there’s no real reason to gather anymore. Losing both parents can also mean a loss of family traditions and structure. The old dynamics have disappeared and it can be easy for families to begin to drift apart, which is another significant loss in itself.
It’s not just sibling relationships that can be rocked when you become an adult orphan; relationships with partners can also be seriously impacted. If you’re struggling with the overwhelming, complex emotions that come with losing both parents, you might find that your partner doesn’t quite ‘get’ it, and doesn’t provide the support you so badly need.
It can also be normal to feel a degree of resentment if your partner’s parents are alive. Of course, this doesn’t mean that you wish that their parents were dead – rather, it’s a sad feeling of bitterness that your partner still has both their parents, but you don’t have yours.
The complexity of becoming an adult orphan
As we’ve seen, the pain of becoming an adult orphan runs much deeper than simple loss. It’s often accompanied by many complex and difficult emotions, some of which are difficult to face up to. When we lose our parents, childhood memories we would rather forget sometimes come rushing back, and things we’d tried to keep hidden resurface.
If you had a challenging relationship with your parents, things can be even more difficult. You’re not only grieving for your parents, you’re also grieving for what could have been – or the things you wished had been. You might feel deep regret for the questions you never asked, or the feelings you never voiced. And in spite of what many people may think, not being close to your parents isn’t necessarily related to how hard their death hits you.
Psychologist Alexander Levy is the author of The Orphaned Adult, and while researching his book, he found that the extent of pain adult orphans experienced when losing a parent had nothing to do with how close they were.
“I wasn’t particularly close to my parents, but closeness doesn’t have anything to do with the impact of death,” Levy has stated. “Some people who were closer to their parents had an easier time, while others were inconsolable. For those who are part of a large, extended family, the loss of a parent didn’t seem quite as significant. They were much less likely to suddenly feel like an orphan.”
Then there are the complex emotions we might feel if our parents had been sick for a long time, or if we’d been responsible for their care. When you spend multiple hours each week making and attending medical appointments, organising care arrangements, and tackling insurance and legal documents – not to mention dealing with the intense sadness of seeing your parents deteriorate – you may feel a sense of relief when you’re finally freed from that burden.
And many people do feel relief, but that’s often accompanied by a terrible sense of guilt. And other adult orphans who cared for their parents expect to feel some relief and find that instead they’re overwhelmed with a feeling of emptiness. They no longer have the responsibilities they’ve become used to and now have an empty void in their lives.
It’s important to note that even if you do feel some relief at losing your parents, that doesn’t lessen the sadness. Jane Brooks is the author of Midlife Orphan, and while researching her book she examined the correlation between relief and pain. “People whose parents were sick for a long time weren’t any less sad,” she comments. “They might feel an initial relief, but it doesn’t lessen the pain.”
How to cope with being a midlife orphan
So, now we’ve taken a closer look at why losing both your parents can be such an incredibly difficult experience and hit us in ways we didn’t expect – what steps can we take to help us deal with being an adult orphan?
1. Don’t minimise the loss
As we’ve seen, it doesn’t matter how old you are when your parents die, or how old your parents were; losing your parents is a big deal, and it’s important to acknowledge that. The death of a second parent often hits hardest, and it’s really important to give yourself time to grieve.
It’s normal to feel numb for a while, but after a few weeks, the grief usually starts to hit. Try to allow yourself to feel the sadness and pain without minimising it. There’s absolutely no need to feel shame over how deep your sorrow is or to feel you need to minimise it.
2. Understand you’ve lost more than your parents
We know that when you lose both your parents, one of the reasons the pain can be so intense is because we’ve lost more than just our mother and father. We’ve also lost part of our past – part of our childhood. We no longer have the people who remember what we were like as children.
If you were a caregiver for your parents, you’ve also lost that role. While caring for an elderly parent is extremely challenging, it can form a huge part of your life, and through it you can forge new friendships and relationships. Losing them can also be difficult.
3. Reach out to others
Losing both parents is often accompanied by a vast range of emotions; some of which you may never have experienced before, and aren’t sure how to deal with. It’s important to reach out to your loved ones and speak out about how you’re feeling. If you have friends or loved ones who’ve also lost both parents, connect with them; as feeling understood can be a powerful healer.
Feeling part of a community can also provide comfort when you’re struggling, so you may also want to consider joining a bereavement support group. Head over to Mind for more details on useful bereavement support contacts.
There are also lots of responsibilities that may fall on you when you lose your parents. Things like registering the death, obtaining death certificates, planning a funeral, contacting banks and utility companies, and sorting out wills can be enormously draining – so ask for help whenever you can.
4. Keep your bond alive
Just because your parents are no longer here, that doesn’t mean your bond no longer exists. You can cherish the bond and your memories of your parents by keeping personal items nearby – then, when you feel the need to be close to them, you can reach for these items. This could be an item of their clothing, a scarf they knitted for you, a piece of jewellery they wore… It doesn’t matter what the item is, as long as it represents your parents.
Another way you can keep your bond with your parents alive is to do things that were special to them. If your parents always made a special meal, you could make it too, and pass the recipe down to other family members – keeping part of them alive. If they were passionate about causes or charities, you could start to donate to them. If they had a favourite band, you could play their music.
5. Share memories of them
Another way you can keep part of your parents alive is by sharing memories of them with loved ones. As long as your memories are here, part of your parents still remains, and sharing stories with friends and family members is an important part of the grieving process.
Not all memories will be happy ones, and it’s important to know that it’s okay to talk about painful memories too. No family is perfect, and family dynamics can be difficult. Your parents may not have been the best parents, and you may not have always been good to them. But it’s our family experiences that shape us into the people we are today, and it’s important to acknowledge them.
Part of the pain of losing your parents involves the pain of unresolved conflicts. There are many things we wish we’d said – or perhaps things we wish we hadn’t said. There may also be sadness and regret at how your parents acted towards you, and these feelings of guilt or anger can exacerbate the grief. You may feel like you never got the closure you need.
Don’t underestimate the power of forgiveness in helping you deal with grief. Try to forgive your parents for the things they might have done that hurt you. Forgive yourself, too, for the pain you may have caused them over the years.
You might find it cathartic to write a letter to your parents where you express your conflicting feelings and voice the things you wish you’d said before they passed away.
Losing both your parents can cause an emotional reaction that’s so powerful it shakes you to your core. Aside from the fundamental feeling of loss, it can also create lasting feelings of isolation and loneliness, bring up painful memories and unresolved conflicts, and cause you to question your life.
All these feelings are normal, and they won’t go away overnight. You might find that the pain is more consuming around holidays, or on your birthday, or their birthdays. But as much as the enormity of the loss can be overwhelming, it’s important to remember that while death ends a life, it doesn’t end a relationship.
You may also realise that as you recover – and you will recover, as difficult as that might be to imagine – you may find you have a new outlook on life. Losing your parents is not just one of life’s painful milestones, it can also be a transformative experience.
You may feel a need to reshape your family dynamic or mend relationships with siblings or family members. If you were a caregiver for your parents, you may feel that now you’re free from that burden, you feel a desire to travel, or move away, or seek new experiences.
When an old world has ended, it means a new one has begun, and whatever your new world looks like, your parents’ voices and memory will still exist – both in your head and in your heart.
Have you been affected by any of the issues in this article – or have you recently lost one or both parents and found the experience much more painful than expected? Do you have any additional suggestions that might help others in their grieving? Join the conversation in the comments below.