We never expect our children to predecease us. So the death of a child-whether at five or fifty-is an inevitably complicating loss. In fact, losing an adult child can be especially problematic for many reasons.
With sympathy and support focused on other survivors, such as a spouse or children, parents may feel a lack of support. Others may not recognize the powerful bond that exists between parent and child once that child is an adult. The grief of the parents then can be disenfranchisedunacknowledged and unrecognized by others. One mother whose 55-year-old son died remarked: “Everyone asks how his wife and kids are doing-few ask how I am doing.”
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. Moreover this loss may occur as they are aging themselves and may deeply depend on the support of their child.
And the loss of an adult child may occur at an age when an older adult is experiencing other losses in their lives such as parents, siblings, or even a spouse. The death of a child is an “out-of-order” death as parents usually die before their child. Surviving parents may feel a sense of survivor guilt, questioning why their child died and have a sense of injustice that challenges spiritual beliefs.
There may be other secondary losses when an adult child dies as well. For example, the older parent’s contact with their grandchildren may change. In some cases it may diminish while in others the parent may take on new responsibilities in assisting the family. Activities where the older parent interacted with their child’s in-laws and friends may not occur as often-or even not at all.
Other factors can complicate grief as well. Parents may feel a lack of control that complicates the loss. Though it is their child, they may have little or no control over the funeral or burial.
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 circumÂ;tances, is always a horrendous event. Support is critical. There may be value in seeking counseling or joining a support group. fhe Compassionate Friends, for example, is a support group for oarents who are grieving the death of a child-no matter what :he child’s age.
There are other things that may be supportive. For example, if the parent was dissatisfied with the funeral, a parent may want 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. The pain associated with the death of your adult child is likely felt by many who had close relationships. A spouse, partner, siblings, children and friends may all be deeply bereaved. If possible, share this loss and grieve with them.
– Kenneth J. Doka, PhD, MDiv, is Sr. Vice President, Grief Programs, HFA and recipient of the 2019 Lifetime Achievement Award from the Association for Death Education and Counseling. An excerpt from the July 2022 Journeys Bereavement Newsletter.