Although the death of a parent is a normal part of the life cycle, and more than 11 million American adults lose a parent each year, few people anticipate the impact of the last parent’s death.

Parental loss is the single most common cause for bereavement. The loss of a parent when you are an adult lacks the poignancy of the loss of a child or spouse.

When an adult loses a parent, genuine sympathy and support from family or friends is often short-lived.

Being an adult orphan is generally not thought of in the same way as a child orphan. In her book “Grieving the Loss of Your Parent,” Judy Ball notes that even if you have enough years to be an adult, you will always be a child in relation to your parents. It is the parent of our youth and childhood that we grieve the most.

Whatever your relationship is with your parent, and parental relationships are generally complicated, it is important to acknowledge your feelings of loss and grieve what has been lost.

When you lose a parent, the loss hits on many levels. Some of the more common losses are described below.

  • Loss of unconditional love, which no one else but a parent can understand or fill.
  • Loss of identity, which only a parent can know. Who can tell you about your history, how you behaved as a baby, what your struggles were? Many adult orphans wonder: Whose child am I?
  • Loss of a family connector. A parent is frequently the one who stays in touch with each child, arranges for family gatherings and keeps siblings connected.
  • Loss of protection. There is a sense of security that lasts into adulthood. Adult children often feel the loss of physical and emotional protection when the parent dies.
  • Loss of nurturing touch. There is a loss of a special physical intimacy and closeness (hugs and caresses) that cannot be replicated.
  • Loss of what we have taken for granted. Celebration of Mother’s Day and Father’s Day, loss of what we have always known.
  • Loss of what could be. Not all parent-child relationships are easy, and the death of a parent also means the loss of a dream or a hope that things could get better. It means accepting imperfection.

Eventually the adult child adjusts to a new life, but the grief experience also makes us different from how we were.

Janet Meyer, MSW, LISW-CP is an associate with Psychological & Counseling Associates of the Lowcountry, LLC in Bluffton.