To understand the significance of the loss of a parent, it’s helpful to examine the many losses associated with this death. What we lose when a parent dies can be complex and traumatic on multiple levels.
The Parent/Child Relationship
There is no one who can replace a parent, as this is usually the person we have known longer than anyone else in the world. We depend on our parents for our very survival and we learn how to be social beings from them. They teach us how to live in the world and we learn about ourselves through our relationship with them. In many ways every other relationship we develop is built on the relationship we have with our parents, and our self-esteem and identity are filtered through our interactions with them.
A Source of Love
Depending on the relationship we had with our parents, what we lose when a parent dies could be a singular source of unconditional love: the feeling that no matter what happens, our parents are there for us, loving us. We have a belief that they accept us and forgive us when needed, even when we disappoint them or ourselves. That unconditional love can help us feel more confident in the world, knowing there are parents who support us.
When our parents die, we lose our childhood. It’s a strange thing to stop being in the role of child and become an adult. When our parents are alive, no matter how old we are, there is an underlying scenario that plays out. We are the child and our parents will always see us that way. When they are no longer there to mirror that back to us, we are truly charged with being an adult in the world. We lose our childhood, and we lose our history. Especially if both parents have died, we no longer have someone to tell our stories. There is no one whom we can ask about our first steps or a funny thing that happened on our second birthday.
When a parent dies, the wisdom that they would have passed down to us at various milestones, such as having a child, is lost. We face a future without their knowledge and their guidance in matters ranging from the mundane (home maintenance, financial planning) to the profound (romantic, religious).
What we lose when a parent dies is also the structure of our family system as it used to be. For example, if our mother or father was the coordinator or family planner in the larger extended family, this may leave the griever left behind feeling isolated. The roles our parents played is significant in how we cope in the aftermath of their deaths. Maybe it was our father that the family came to for advice and guidance – not only is that lost for us, but it affects the other members of the family. Similar to a hanging mobile, once a part of the mobile/family member is removed, it will never be balanced in the same way again.
Buffer Against Our Own Death
Even though we know that our parents will most likely die before us, the true understanding of what this means is not comprehended until it happens. We lose a buffer from the next generation. If we have lost all of our grandparents, and parents, then we are launched into the next generation. There are no other wise elders. We are confronted with our mortality in a new way and a common response is fear.
Relationship From Parent Child To One Of Friendship
As we age, our relationship can change from one of parent-to-child to one of friendship and mutual appreciation. When this happens it can be a rewarding experience. If we lost a parent as a teen, or young adult, our relationship may not have the opportunity to develop to its full potential. This can leave us with regrets, as we think about how we may have interacted with them.
Integrating What We Lose When a Parent Dies
To begin to heal from this type of loss, it is important to examine the type of relationship we had with our parents and to take note of the myriad of losses. If our relationship with our parents was not one in which they provided a source of support, we mourn the relationship that we wish we had, as well as the loss of the potential to reconcile with our parents in the future. We can be left to sort through the deficits on our own.
Reviewing our relationship can be a difficult process, but doing this creates an opportunity to recall the positive traits and memories of our parents, as well as some of the painful, complicated aspects and unfulfilling memories. This decreases the possibility of either idealizing or vilifying our parents.
In order to integrate the loss, this review is necessary, as it allows for us to view our parents as people who were human. It’s important to examine the kind of values our parents taught us and understand some of the family messages we received. Perhaps some of those messages do not serve us any longer. Over time we may find that there are some legacies and traditions that we can let go of and some that we can keep alive.
Meg Eifrig, LCPC
Adapted from Adventist St. Thomas.