Grieving the Death of an Adult Child

Kenneth J. Doka, Ph.D.

“If she were eight, everyone would understand my grief.  Why can’t they understand it now?  Even though she was forty-eight years old, she was still my daughter”

Other parents who have experienced the death of an adult child often echo Jean’s comment. They may feel a lack of support. Part of that may be due to sympathy and support is focused on other survivor’s—the adult child’s spouse or children. Part may occur simply because there is little recognition of the powerful bond that exists between parent and child even though  that child is grown and independent.  Whatever the reasons, the result is the same. The grief of the parent can be disenfranchised.

This complicates an already difficult situation. The death of an adult child often comes as the parent is aging. This loss may BE \one of the many losses that the parent is experiencing as they age. In short, this loss may add to a litany of losses, complicating coping.

There may be other losses as well when an adult child dies. The parent may lose a critical source of support in their own lives—someone on whom they depended—emotionally, physically, or financially. They may have experienced a sense of vicarious achievement in the child’s successes. They may feel a deep sense of disappointment that the adult child never accomplished cherished goals. The parent’s contact with their grandchildren may change.

Jean was distressed that her daughter never had the opportunity to watch her own children grow or to achieve a long-sought and nearly attained promotion. Sometimes the death of an adult child can affect other relationships. Relations with the widowed spouse or grandchildren may change. Family events may seem so different now.

There may be other issues. Parents may feel a lack of control that complicates the loss.  Though it is their child, they may have little or no control over treatment or even the funeral or burial.

The death of a child is an “out-of-order” death. Normally the parent dies first. This, too, affects grief. Parents may feel a sense of survivor guilt, questioning why their child died. There may be a sense of injustice that challenges spiritual beliefs.

How, then, can parents cope with such a loss? How can others offer support? First, it is critical to validate that grief, to recognize that the death of a child, regardless of age or circumstances, is always a horrendous event. Support is critical. There may be value in seeking counseling or joining a support group. The Compassionate Friends, for example, is a support group for parents who are grieving the death of a child.

If the parent had little control over the funeral rituals or if these rituals were not meaningful, a parent may wish to gather his or her own friends for a ritual. Jean did that. Since her daughter’s funeral was far away, she decided to have a memorial service so her friends could attend.

Finally, it is important to acknowledge that others—perhaps a spouse, siblings, children and friends, share this loss. Grieve with them.

Kenneth J. Doka, Ph.D., is a professor of psychology and counseling at the College of New Rochelle, a senior consultant to the Hospice Foundation of America, and the author of Grief is a Journey.

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