The mental picture most have of an “orphaned child” is a sad-faced youngster trying to make sense of a scary world. But what about facing the death of a parent when you are no longer a “youngster?” Even grownups face the hard task of saying goodbye to a parent.
As adult children, we bear a unique perspective on grief that is different from that of a surviving spouse. While the death of a spouse is a huge loss, it is a very different loss from the grief growing out of a parent’s death.
Sometimes, early grief is muted by utter exhaustion, especially if you cared for your parent through an illness. Often, grief is magnified by the realization that you now bear an inordinate responsibility for a surviving parent or as the new leader of “the clan.”
With the death of a biological parent, we don’t remember a time prior to being his or her child; this relationship is older than any other we have and there is no “history” apart from this individual. If, on the other hand, you came to know your parent later in life, grief can be intensified by sadness about lost years and opportunities. And when you must say goodbye to a “parent by choice,” one who married your biological parent, for example, or an adoptive parent, that loss is also unique and significant. So much of what we know about the world-for good and for bad-came to us first from our parents.
Not all memories from our families, however, are pleasant. Grief is an odd experience, in that we often grieve the relationship we did not have as much as all we lost. When the relationship with your parent was pocked by substance addiction or abuse, for example, saying goodbye can be filled with mixed feelings. It’s quite normal to feel little sadness over saying goodbye to some parts of the relationship, even while grieving the opportunities missed for meaningful connection.