Healing after an adult child dies

The death of your child, regardless of the cause or age, is painful and overwhelming.  You may feel disoriented because a vital part of yourself has been taken away. Perhaps you are thinking, “My child was not supposed to die before me.” You, like most parents, expected to die before your child.  Your child’s death is not something you prepared for, and it seems unfair and untimely.

Your child has always been your child.

Your child, no matter what age, remains your child forever. Even after your child has become an adult, you still have a parent-child relationship. The two of you may have changed your relationship into a more mutual one as adults and perhaps have even become special friends. This doesn’t change the fact that you are the one who loved, reared and encouraged your child to develop and grow to maturity.

After the death of your child, you may remember with bittersweet sadness your sense of pride and accomplishment when your adult child completed her or his education, started a career or established a family.  It is heart wrenching for you to lose not only your beloved child but also your shared history and dreams.

The complexity and depth of your grief are beyond what words can express.

Perhaps only another parent who has lost an adult child can understand the depth of the pain you may be experiencing. Even if the death was anticipated, you still may feel shocked and numb.  If your relationship with your child was strained, or if you did not live near each other for some time, perhaps you now feel regret that you were not closer.  If there were unfinished issues between you and your adult child, your pain may be intensified.

If you have grandchildren, there may be additional stress as you become concerned about their care and well-being.  It may be that the demands of your own life concerns conflict with the desire to fully grieve the loss of your child.  The push-pull of conflicting emotions can be very complex and difficult to cope with. Some of the emotions associated with your loss may be:

  • A sense of futility: You may feel a sense of hopelessness because your child’s life was cut short. You may even question the purpose of your own life.  All of your hopes and dreams may feel shattered.   You may be tormented by that unanswerable question, “Why did my child have to die?”


  • A feeling of guilt: You may experience guilt for having outlived your child. Perhaps you are questioning if you could have prevented the death.  Or you might be thinking, “I wish it was me who died rather than my child.”  These reactions can be especially intense if your child died as a result of unnatural causes.  Perhaps you are left feeling judged, isolated and unsupported.


  • Feeling abandoned: If you are elderly, you may have relied on your child for companionship, support, well-being and security. You may be wondering, “How can I make it on my own?  I relied on my child for support. I just don’t know what to do.” 

You may find that others discount the depth of your grief.

You may find that other people are not able to comprehend the depth and complexity of your grief.  They may feel uncomfortable because they do not know what to say or do.  In an attempt to console you, your friends or family may make comments that do not feel supportive or helpful.  There is a lack of understanding; therefore you are not comforted by their words.   Strong bonds of love and trust were built over the long years of your relationship and the loss of your child is irreplaceable.  Know that these thoughts and feelings are a normal part of grieving.

How to survive and heal:

Learning to go on with life and heal after the death of your child is a difficult road to travel and will take time.  Here are some suggestions you may want to consider:

  • The first step in your grief journey is to allow yourself the time you need to heal. Remember that healing does not mean forgetting.  Accept that your child will always be in your heart.  You can honor your child by creating a special place in your home to display photos or mementos.  You can also write letters and speak to her or him.  Writing a journal may also be helpful.


  • You may decide to do something in memory of your daughter or son such as: establishing a memorial fund, creating a scholarship, making a donation to a charity, giving books to a library or becoming involved with helping others. With these activities, you may feel you can keep the memory of your child vibrant and share the beauty of their life with others.  You may be able to pay tribute to your child and find a sense of purpose that is healing for you.
  • With your family, consider talking about the death, the loss and the pain. Revisit the good memories of your child and your life together. Realize that each person within your family will be grieving in their own unique way.  It is natural and healing to express feelings and shed tears; however, not everyone is outwardly expressive.  Some may use words and some may not.


  • Nurture a sense of hope that there is purpose and meaning in your life. With the passage of time and honoring your grief, painful feelings will lessen.


  • Prepare for special days. Plan ahead for occasions such as anniversary dates, birthdays, holidays and other special times.


  • Allow friends to help. Allowing others to help will give them an opportunity to support you.


  • It is often helpful to join a bereavement support group where you will find a safe and compassionate place to express your feelings, find support, and heal. If you are comfortable with the Internet, you may want to share your grief journey with compassionatefriends.org, a group that is dedicated to helping parents whose children have died.


Adapted from: “Losing an Adult Child” by Barbara Klich, “When an Adult Child Dies” by Miriam Moss, and “The Death of an Adult Child” by The Compassionate Friends

Provided by Gerard’s House, a grief support center for children, teenagers and their families in Santa Fe, New Mexico. For more information please contact us at (505) 424-1800 or gerardshouse.org.

This article was published in “The Grieving Heart,” written and edited by Bob Dorsett, LLC, www.silentseas.net

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