When Your Parents Die: Becoming an Adult Orphan

By Deann Zampelli   |   June 18, 2024

Shortly after I got married, my 64-year-old mother lost her battle with breast cancer. Seven years later my father joined her. The loss isn’t any less painful just because you are a grown-up.

I was 39 and an orphan. 

It sounds strange to say it that way, but that was how it felt. “Untethered,” was how I described it to my husband.

And even though I was sharing this experience with my incredible older brother and sister, this profound loss made me feel uniquely alone.

Now in my 50s, I am witnessing many of my friends nursing their elderly parents and then supporting them through the grief and ultimate loss. I never thought there would be an upside to losing my own parents so young, but since they are already gone, I suppose it wouldn’t be disrespectful to make lemonade out of death and premature loss. So here it goes.

I will never have to experience the mental and physical decline of their prolonged illness or painful aging process. I won’t be faced with their financial difficulties from long-term care which so often bankrupts our elders during the last stage of their life. I won’t watch their hearts break as they realize that they are losing their faculties, their independence, and their voice.

But loss is still loss at any age, and while I am sure that some derive comfort from a parent dying at 99 after a full and healthy life, the loss is still significant. Be they young or old, losing a parent is one of life’s milestones that isn’t spoken of enough in these terms.

Parents help shape the very fibers that make us who we are. For better or for worse, we hear them in our decision-making, our mistakes, our insecurities, our strengths, our victories, and our failures.

For some, the loss of a parent can be a relief or a release. If the relationship was abusive or complicated, the death, while still painful, might eventually bring solace.

But for those of us who are in the “my world was just turned sideways, what day of the week is it, and why did I just start crying in the produce aisle of the grocery store (again)” camp, things are a bit more complicated.

Many don’t realize that grief isn’t linear. We don’t go through a neat little phase, checking off each stage as we complete it.

The famous (and somewhat debunked) five stages of grief introduced by Elisabeth Kübler-Ross in the 1960s (Denial, Anger, Bargaining, Depression, Acceptance) were from a study she did on the emotional states of patients who were dying. It was their stages she was referencing, not ours.

For those of us left behind though, we are forced to create our own checklist, on the fly. The grieving process seemed never-ending for me. My stages were more like: Crying, Despair, Eating, Memory Loss, Crying, Behavior Swings, Get a Puppy, Eating, Sadness, Move to a City I had only Visited Once, Crying, Take business trips in a fugue state, and Lethargy. Repeat, except for the moving part, I am still there after 18 years.

Many years after my dad died, I came to a frightening realization. After the initial stages of my grief had subsided (see above), it suddenly dawned on me that my siblings and I were next in line to kick it. It’s not that we still don’t have a few older relatives around but with our parents out of the picture – WE were the elders, the next gen.

Wait, how is that possible? We are just kids. Ok, well not exactly kids, per se. But still. They were our buffer between here and the great beyond. Our SPF against mortality. Our Captain America shield shoved in the face of the Grim Reaper. Take that! And they were gone. Now our kids needed us to be the buffer, the SPF, the shield. That’s a lot of pressure. Not to mention, the loss of our parents highlights our own mortality. Sorry, it just does.

Learning how to grieve can be trickier for some than for others. In western society, we don’t often discuss, let alone celebrate death as other cultures do, and therefore, when it greets us, we aren’t acclimatized. We don’t have rituals in place. We often need to create them as we go.

Some of the more common and effective tools for navigating the Tsunami of Grief are:

1. Self-care. Be kind to yourself. Allow yourself to grieve. Give yourself permission to be a shit show for a while. Take walks and eat healthy and delicious foods. Be communicative about what you need from those around you. Grieving is different for everyone.

2. Be aware. Grief isn’t just emotional. It can manifest physically and psychologically, sleep disturbance, loss of appetite. And according to Harvard Health Publishing, “It may be difficult to muster much interest in the life going on around you. You may experience restlessness, memory impairment, or difficulty concentrating…” and the list goes on.

3. Having a ritual or a place where you can commune with your loved one can be cathartic. This doesn’t always mean a traditional grave site. The act of mourning is a cultural death ritual we have unknowingly participated in for millennia. According to Dr. Lucy Selman, an associate professor in end-of-life care at the University of Bristol and the founding director of Good Grief Festival, “Mourning plays an important role in bereavement because it’s a way of externalizing the emotions and thoughts of grief and, through that, incorporating the loss into your life and beginning to heal.” Even lighting a candle and thinking of your loved one can offer comfort and peace. It is all a way to connect with the one you lost and find a way to feel their presence.

4. Reach out. Find a support group or friends who understand what you are going through. Sometimes you don’t need an answer. You just need to get the words out.

5. Here’s a big one. Don’t feel bad for not feeling worse. If someone was an asshole in life and then dies, it doesn’t mean they were any less of an asshole. But that doesn’t mean you still won’t grieve the loss. It just might be more complicated. The key is to not berate yourself for holding these two thoughts simultaneously; your parent was an asshole AND you are still experiencing a profound loss. It’s your grief. Experience it how you need to. Which brings me to #6.

6. Don’t let anyone tell you how to grieve. Or make it about them. Or their grief. Sharing common experiences can be very therapeutic as it forms a bond of trust and mutual understanding. But when you have someone who tends to make it all about them, stay clear. This needs to be about you, and your loved ones, and that you all need to get through this in the healthiest way possible. Don’t be afraid to draw the line or withdraw when you have had enough.

Above all, let your experience be your own. Truly, none of us know what this will mean, or how it will manifest until it does. It wasn’t until both of my parents died that I really felt that I understood who they were. Their absence made my clarity stronger. I can’t really explain it, but there it was.

There is so much more to be said on this, but for now, I will close with one final thought. If possible, say your peace, ask your questions, and get some answers, before it is too late.

Grief is complicated enough without adding a dash or two of regret. Not all of us have the luxury of time, to say and do what we need to before we lose a parent. But if you do, try to use the time to heal. Or to help. Or to love. Or to query. Because regret is the biggest reaper of them all.  


You might also be interested in...