The Unspeakable Loss—the Death of an Adult Child

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Image credit: photo by DAVIDCOHEN on Unsplash.

This article is one in which I have thought about writing for quite some time yet have postponed it because of the personal nature of the material and the intense feelings connected to it.

Yet, it is time. I feel ready.

The subject is too important to wait any longer to write about it. The recent death of Carrie Fisher and her Mom, Debbie Reynold’s reaction to it, and then her subsequent death a day later, compelled me to write about what it is like for a parent to lose an adult child through death. 

This Isn’t Supposed to Happen 

For many parents, it feels like an unnatural occurrence for an adult child to leave this earth before their parents. I so clearly remember three years ago watching my own Mom dealing with the devastating death of her son, my brother.

The death of someone we love is always profoundly painful, yet there is something even more emotionally horrific about a parent losing their own child. 

So many distressing thoughts and unanswered questions may plague us.

  • “How could this be?”
  • “I’m not ready.”
  • “Why him/her and not me?”
  • “This isn’t supposed to happen.”

The devastation and disbelief that we could outlive our own adult child is unfathomable. The thought that this cannot be happening, that this is not supposed to happen this way is overwhelming and often debilitating.

The thought that one of our life’s dreams, to have a child to love, nurture and cherish has been taken, that this dream has ended, is unbearable.

The Loss of My Child

For many of us, wanting and planning for a child and a family, is one of the most significant and joyful decisions we make in life. Thus, losing our child at any age, this essential part of our family, often magnifies the feelings and complicates the grief. 

Dealing with any loss, enduring any grief is huge, but there’s something about losing a child that magnifies the feelings experienced during the grieving process. This includes denial, anger, bargaining and depression.

Part may occur simply because there is little recognition of the powerful bond that exists between parent and child even though that child is grown and independent.

Kenneth J. Doka, Ph.D., professor of psychology and senior consultant to the Hospice Foundation of America.

Sympathy for the loss is often focused on the spouse and / or their children and not the parent of the adult child. Thus, there may be a feeling of a lack of support for their grief. The parent of the adult child may feel a lack of control if the spouse is managing the details of the burial and funeral.

As an aging parent, the loss of the adult child is just one more loss to add to many endured with age and further complicates the grieving process.

What is My Purpose?

The questioning of ones’ purpose in life is very natural when their role is changed and the anticipated joy of watching a child fulfill their life goals is taken. “How can I go on?”

The death of Debbie Reynolds, so soon after her daughter brought speculation that she died of the ‘broken heart syndrome.’ That the sudden weakening of her heart was triggered by the emotional stress and loss of her daughter. Debbie Reynold’s son, Todd, shared that his mother said she wouldn’t be at her daughter’s funeral. That she wanted to be with her.

Who Am I Now?

The relationship within the family, and perhaps with our grandchildren, is now changed. The loss of a child may cause a questioning of identify. “I’m a mother, I’m a father, and what am I now?” 

Even though there might be other children, and the role of mother or father still might have meaning, it is forever altered. After spending a lifetime identifying as a mother or father to our child the thought that we must endure the loss of this role, “I’m no longer this child’s Mom or Dad,” can be difficult to accept.

Why Would ‘God’ Allow This to Happen?

Those who still feel connected with God, or spirit, during this time often discover some solace can be found in their beliefs while going through the grieving process. Grieving is not easier, however, maintaining some connection may provide comfort and feel supportive while grieving.

However, if there is a spiritual crisis in that a question of the existence of their God or spiritual support arises, the anger may become so great that the very existence of our faith comes into question. It may further exacerbate grieving and emotional pain.

Previously there might be some connection with God, or spirit, to try to help in coping with grief. This complicates the grieving process if that earlier undeniable support found in our faith is no longer there. “If there were really a God, he / she would have not allowed this to happen.”

How Do I Cope?

Many of us struggle dealing with loss, and coping with grief, or finding the best way to provide comfort to our friends or family during trying times.

Our licensed grief counselors at Nassau Guidance & Counseling located on Long Island can help during a difficult emotional time.

Many people find that speaking with a trusted psychotherapist can help work through feelings of loss and grief, while providing comfort and support.

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