This article is addressed to adults who have lost a parent. However, if that parent also happens to be your spouse, then this article is also meant for you — the parent of that adult child. Looking at parent-child relationships from every perspective is valuable and can help both parent and adult children heal and grow.

When your parent dies, the family gets confused.

The roles you had come to know and expect in your family, roles that have been in place for much of your life, suddenly are not the same. It can feel very foreign, unfamiliar and can really rock your world. Who are we without mom? Who are we without dad?

Adult children grieving

Let’s start with the good news. The relationship between a surviving parent and adult child can eventually reach a new balance that is more positive than negative. The changed relationship between you and your parent can actually become closer.

When your parent dies, especially the figurehead of a family, there is such an empty space. It can feel so unbalanced. You long to restore some semblance of what existed before the death of your parent. You want it all back! You’re grieving the fact that your family has now been changed… forever.

This new empty space in the family will bring challenges to you and your bereaved parent. Trying to negotiate this new space can feel overwhelming. Your surviving parent is probably feeling confused, lost and even powerless as they grieve not only the loss of their spouse or partner, but the huge loss of being an independent couple and a self-sufficient adult. Grief and loss can leave them feeling vulnerable and incapable of knowing what to do. These feelings get compounded with the role change that involves… you. They suddenly go from bring the protective, strong parent to sometimes feeling like they’re being treated like an over protected “child.” Inside they might be saying: “I am still your Parent, and you are still my Child.”

Your life may begin to feel like a juggling act. Added to the stressors of assuming responsibility for your surviving parent, you also have your own children that are needing varying degrees of attention depending upon their age. You have now become a part of the “Sandwich Generation.” How did this change of roles happen? Your internal script might be saying, “What happened?! My parents are supposed to be helping me.” The reality is that life has changed for you and for your surviving parent… in such very different ways. This can all come as quite a surprise!

It’s important to know that these changes can end up being positive. You just need to be sensitive to some nuances in the relationship and understand that the death of a spouse has a much different meaning and impact to a spouse than the death of a parent has to an adult child.

Why? You’ve had a parent die… but you also might have your own family, and support from your family, to help you maintain family balance. You can take a break from your grief for your parent and go back into your own home and family.

Many of the changes for adult children who have experienced the death of a parent are internal changes such as facing your own mortality or being thrown into growing into that true adult. Believe it or not, many of us are not really emotionally independent from our parents until they die. Even then, it can be a rough journey.

Meanwhile, when a spouse dies, one parent is left alone and adrift. Not only has their spouse, their lover, their best friend died, but so too has the couple. That loss changes the life of your surviving parent immeasurably as now your parent must redefine their lives without their mate. They live in this grief and loss 24/7 for a while.

What are some of the issues that arise with you and your remaining parent?

  • Your surviving parent may be in denial about physical or mental limitations.
  • How do you support your remaining parent’s independence and still fill your need to help?
  • How do you satisfy the need for your own privacy and your life, yet still check in?
  • How do you find the balance to support/help and yet allow your parent to make decisions on their own?
  • How do you address your feeling of guilt and concern when you feel the need to say, “No” or are not doing what you think your parent wants.

You will most likely need to make changes that allow you to loosen the ties of a “parent child relationship” and move into that adult relationship. It’s difficult to be a healthy resource for your parent if you still have the role as their child. It’s especially difficult when everyone is grieving.

There are no magic answers… and it takes time. Most importantly, you need to establish healthy rules of engaging in a conversation.

  • Open honest and respectful conversations with each other.
  • Honor your own needs and say “No” in order to protect your own priorities.
  • Develop respect and trust in one another.
  • Ask for help from one another.
  • Avoid secrets and guilt trips.
  • Although you want to help, in reality your parent may grow stronger if you allow him or her to do as much as he/she can for themselves.
  • Accept, have faith and don’t judge. You have not walked in each other’s shoes.
  • If all else fails, seek help, counseling or a support group.

It is likely that over time, your conflicts and differences will smooth with the help of patience, understanding, healthy communications and a willingness to have more fluidity in role changes.

Please remember, sorting out the emotional conflicts while your parent is still alive will make a difference in everyone’s lives. It will enable you to recognize and appreciate that your parent has endured many changes and losses through their lifetime and allows a compassionate adult relationship to evolve. All of this helps you to prepare for another, healthier, inevitable goodbye in the future.