Losing an Adult Child

BY: Kathryn R. Harrison Brown, MA, LPC

CATEGORY: Grief and Loss

Parents never expect their children to die before them.

Although we grieve when a parent dies, it follows the natural order of things for children to bury their parents, especially if they are elderly or sick. But, for parents, the idea of losing a child is inconceivable no matter how old that child is. When a young child who is terminally ill dies or is tragically killed in an accident, there may be thoughts that life isn't fair. How could such a young child die? He or she didn't even live long enough to do this or that. Why would God let a child die? The thoughts when an adult child dies may vary, but are nonetheless painful and sad.

Parents understand the various stages children go through as they strive to find themselves and gain their independence. Younger children experiencing normal growing pains of youth may think parents do not understand anything and the child knows it all. As the child matures, there is an appreciation for the wisdom and knowledge parents had all along but which the child couldn't accept. 

Eventually, the relationship between parent and child may deepen and even assume the role of friend. As the roles change, the adult child may be a source of emotional, physical, spiritual or financial support to the parents. When one of the parents dies, the adult child may be the person the remaining parent looks to for support, especially if he or she are elderly with many deceased family members and friends.

Caregiving is also a role the child may take on as the parent ages or declines in health. One can only imagine the tremendous sense of loss if that adult child dies. Not only is there grief because of the death, there may be the loss of companion, caregiver, friend and support. There may also be a change in the relationship with the son/daughter in-law, especially if that person establishes a new relationship in the future. That brings another sense of loss.

"The death of a child, regardless of age or circumstances, is always a horrendous event. Support is critical," according to Kenneth Doka in his July 2003 Journeys article, When an Adult Child Dies. We would assume that grief support is automatic for the parents of an adult child, but that is not always the case. If the deceased child was a spouse, parent, or partner, the support may be directed to the children or surviving spouse or partner. So the support you expected and needed as the parent may not be forthcoming. What do you do?

Recognize that you have the right to grieve for your child no matter what their age. Understand that your loss is real and profound. Seek support from available resources. Consider attending a grief support group geared toward parents who have lost adult children. Perhaps one-on-one support would better meet your needs.​

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