When Your Adult Child Has Died

The death of a child at any age is the greatest fear of all parents. Parents should not have to bury their children. It is “out of order” and feels wrong. It shatters their whole world.

When your child dies, you lose not only your child but your hopes and dreams for the future. As your child grows up, and you begin to see their dreams realized, you live with the assumption that you will not have to see your child die. You may even have had the opportunity to experience the joy of becoming a grandparent and seeing the life cycle of your family continue. Life is as it should be.

So when your adult child dies, it can be overwhelming. You didn’t see it coming. Your child didn’t live longer than you, as anticipated. The world didn’t go on as it should have, and your view of what is normal about life has been altered without your permission.

It doesn’t matter if you spent time or talked with your child daily or only saw them on an irregular basis, you are a parent. Parents spend a lot of time protecting, enjoying and worrying about their children, no matter how old they are. Sometimes people fool themselves into believing that since their child is an adult, they are no longer responsible. However, with a child’s death, people feel guilty for not protecting them and guilty for being alive when they are dead. Be prepared for these moments.

What Am I Feeling?

You may feel bombarded by fear and anger. You may fear your future because this child was part of your security for old age. You may fear losing contact with in-laws and grandchildren. You might feel anger because you may not have been allowed to participate in medical or funeral decisions. You may feel anger at yourself over times that your relationship with your adult child was not all you wanted it to be. You may even feel angry with God because he allowed this to happen.

Aside from the emotional feelings, grief is very physical. It saps your energy, affects your appetite, keeps you awake or makes you want to sleep all the time. When you are tired and hungry, every emotional event, such as seeing someone who looks like your child or hearing about the successes of someone else’s child, will hit you with greater impact. Taking care of your physical self is important: drink plenty of water, eat protein and complex carbohydrates to give you energy and do your best to get at least six to eight hours of sleep or rest. Even if you can only manage to walk for 15 to 20 minutes three times a week, you will be doing a lot to recharge your batteries and reduce stress.

Grief is a complex process of your mind, body and spirit. Your mind seeks information about what happened, trying to make sense out of the senseless. The ‘if only’ and ‘I should have’ thoughts can attack at any time sending you sliding into despair as you realize there is nothing you can change about what has happened. Blame and doubt may become constant companions. Seeking information and talking to others about your ‘should have’ thoughts will help you use your mind to process your grief.

Expect an emotional roller coaster. Don’t avoid the pain of your emotions with overwork, overplay or try to lessen the pain with drugs or alcohol. These things will only provide temporary relief. The pain will still be present and be expressed, perhaps as anger or despair. Use a journal to express your feelings, write a poem, read writings of others who have experienced a loss. Paint a picture, create a story, or create a ritual of remembrance; these are ways to confront your grief and allow you to move through the process. This allows you to grieve for the whole person’s life, not just stay focused on the end-of-life events.

How Long Does Grief Last?

Grief lasts far longer than anyone expects. There are no time frames for grieving, although many think it should be over quickly. Everyone will grieve in his own way and in his own time. Men, especially, may be tempted to be strong and not express feelings. Different situations also affect grief: Remember… wanting to help your other children and grandchildren cope with their pain compounds your grief. As a parent, this is a natural inclination. You must first help yourself before you are able to help other family members. You may have issues of health yourself. There are not right or wrong ways to grieve. Your family’s different grieving styles should not be interpreted as meaning they loved your child less. Everyone had a unique relationship to your child and will grieve differently because of it.

What Can I Do?

Believe that intense pain will not always be present. You will need opportunities to talk about the death and pain.

  • Look for others who have experienced similar deaths so that you may gain a sense of hope by seeing that they are able to continue life.
  • Tell your story to others to help you work through your grief and make you more able to help grandchildren or other children grieve.
  • Create rituals to help you celebrate your adult child. Other family members may help you think of ways to commemorate this life. Establishing a scholarship, donating books, planting a tree, becoming involved in your child’s favorite charity or activity are all ways to share your child’s life with others.

You will not get over the death of your child, but you can learn to live and enjoy life again. There will always be moments of pain and sorrow as you remember the birthday, the anniversary of the death and as you mark the passing events you planned to share with your child. Be prepared for these moments of grief and do not be alarmed as they continue throughout your life. The times of grief are also times to tell the story of this child. How you looked forward to their birth, what you hoped their life would be like, and memories you have of the joy you had in their successes. Your children are always a part of your life. They are a part of who you are. You do not have to stop loving them because they have died. They are forever in your heart.