How do I deal with the loss of my adult child?

Research has shown that the loss of a child causes more stress than any other loss that one can experience. Coping with the loss of an adult child can be somewhat different than dealing with the death of a young child, but the grief and pain could be equally intense.

As parents, we have an innate expectation that our children will outlive us. When you have a child, the natural order of life involves a complex set of biological, emotional, and social processes that play out over the course of your child’s growth and development. At its core, the natural order of life when raising a child involves a process of nurturing, teaching, and guiding your child as they learn to navigate the world around them. This process typically involves a range of milestones, such as learning to walk, talk, and socialise with others, as well as more complex challenges like developing a sense of identity, building relationships, and pursuing personal and career goals. Our role in this process is to provide our child with the love, support, and guidance they need to develop into healthy, well-adjusted adults. When we have shared all these milestones and memories with our child and we outlive them, it is a normal reaction to question the meaning of it all, and experience intense sorrow.

Throughout the process of bringing up a child, you may have experienced a range of emotions, including joy, pride, frustration, and even a kind of grief as your child grows and develops. Raising a child ultimately involves a deep sense of connection and commitment to your child, as well as a desire to see them thrive and succeed in life. When your child dies before you do, it can feel like a violation of normal expectations and this alone can already be challenging to come to terms with. As parents, we often have hopes and dreams for our children, and the loss of a child can shatter these aspirations. Additionally, parents may feel a sense of responsibility and guilt for their child’s death, even if it’s not rational or justified.

We often feel a deep sense of satisfaction and joy in watching our children grow and develop into their own unique individuals. The process of nurturing, teaching, and guiding children through life’s challenges can be incredibly fulfilling, especially when parents see the positive impact they have on their children’s lives. The death of a child can challenge a parent’s sense of purpose, identity, and beliefs about the world. As a parent you naturally see your purpose in life as caring for and protecting your children. The death of a child can shatter this lifelong motivation and leave you feeling lost and without direction. It can be challenging to find a sense of purpose or fulfilment when your “main responsibility” seems to have been taken away.

Raising children usually provides a sense of continuity and legacy and parents inherently see their children as an extension of themselves and feel a sense of pride in passing on their values, beliefs, and traditions to the next generation. All of which is no longer possible when the child is lost, creating sadness that can be very overwhelming. The love and connection that develop between parents and children serves as a source of comfort and support throughout life’s ups and downs which is a dream that shatters when the child is no longer there. The death of a child can also challenge a parent’s identity, affecting their sense of self-worth, making them feel like they have failed in their responsibility. Parents often blame themselves for their child’s death, even if they had no control over the situation, leading to feelings of guilt and shame. These feelings can cause parents to question their abilities as a parent and again question their worth as a person. Due to all these factors, losing a child can put immense strain on a marriage, as each partner grieves in their own way and may not understand how the other is feeling. This difference in grieving styles can cause tension between partners if they don’t take the time to understand one another’s needs. We should try to remember that grief looks different for everyone, even within the same family:

  • Emotions: One spouse may become emotionally overwhelmed with sadness and express it openly, while the other may be stoic or try to remain strong for their partner.
  • Communication style: One parent might want to talk about their loss constantly, while the other prefers not to bring it up at all.
  • Guilt: It’s very common for parents to experience guilt over how they’re handling their loss. Both parents need to acknowledge that there isn’t a “right” or “wrong” way to deal with such an emotional tragedy. 
  • Disconnect: It’s normal for couples to feel disconnected from one another due to these differences in coping mechanisms; however, communication is especially vital during this time. Make sure to be open about what works best for each of you when discussing your feelings about the loss of your child. This might mean talking often, or it could mean taking breaks from conversations about it. Both parties need to feel heard and understood by one another during this painful process.

Apart from handling their own grief, and being sensitive towards a spouse, it can be difficult to know how to support your other children. Siblings will experience grief differently, and in their own way. Ways that you can help your other children include:

  • Acknowledging their feelings
  • Being patient with different reactions
  • Providing comfort and support
  • Encouraging healthy coping mechanisms
  • Recognising the signs that might indicate the need for professional grief counselling

When you as a parent feel overwhelmed, remember that it is okay to feel sad, angry, or any other emotions that arise. Acknowledge your feelings and allow yourself to grieve in your own way and time. It is a good idea to seek support and talk to people who understand your loss, such as friends, family, support groups, or someone who has gone through a similar experience. Many online forums are dedicated to grieving the loss of a child. There, you can share stories and get tips on how others cope with their parental grief. If you’re having a hard time coping with your grief or experiencing depression, anxiety, or health issues, consider seeing a therapist or counsellor. Cherish your memories of your child and celebrate their life. You may find comfort in creating a tribute or memorial for them, remembering the milestones that you have reached through the years and focussing on the laughter, the special moments and the unique relationship that has developed as you shared the process from their birth to adulthood with your child.

While the loss of an adult child can be different from the loss of a young child in terms of the relationship and the circumstances surrounding their death, the pain and grief are equally valid and traumatic. Remember, there’s no “right” way to grieve, and it’s essential to take your time to process your emotions and seek support when you need it. Sonja Smith Elite Funeral Group provides support for those dealing with the death of a baby, child or adult.

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