Life As We Know It
CATEGORY: Grief and Loss
BY: Kathryn Harrison Brown, MA, LPC
PUBLICATION: About Grief
According to the “natural order of things,” our parents will probably die before us. Although we expect this, the death of a parent can rock the foundation we leaned on for so many years. Whether five years old or 50, we have the illusion that our parents will be here forever. As children, we rely on parents for our most basic needs like food, shelter, clothes, comfort and support. Parents also build our emotional and social framework, which prepares us for the future.
As young adults, we turn to our parents for their wisdom and guidance as we make major life decisions about marriage, child rearing, college and career choices. As we get older, our parents play important roles in our own children’s lives as grandparents. Even as their roles evolve, the quest for their approval of our choices remains.
As we reach middle age ourselves, the roles can reverse. Physical changes in the elderly may require more assistance from the children or even a professional. Memory problems can result in poor judgment and lead to safety issues. As we provide more help, we become more realistic about this role reversal, even though it is difficult to accept.
When one parent dies, children grieve the loss but also must cope with the remaining parent’s grief. After both parents die, adult children may feel orphaned, despite having their own family. The realization that you are no longer anyone’s child can hurt beyond belief. According to Professor Andrew Scharlach, previously of USC, “As long as a parent is alive, there is somebody between us and what we fear. We are symbolically protected” According to Scharlach, the death of our parents forces us to face our own mortality because we are next in line.
Accepting the death of the people we thought would always be here can be overwhelming and intense. Many emotions and feelings surface which are part of the normal grief process. Sharing your story with someone whether family, friends, clergy or professionals can be helpful.