Orphan Photo Blog

Life Transitions: When your elderly parent dies and you feel like an orphan – how do you cope?

When a parent dies, the sense of becoming an orphan even as an adult can be overwhelming. People have described feelings such as abandonment, loneliness and anxiety about their future. Your mother or father who provided a safe harbour emotionally or in any other way that made you feel at ease in the world, is no longer around.

I’m an adult, why would I feel like an orphan?

Whether you are 35 years old and still single, or 55 with two grown children, losing a parent can bring up the feeling that you may not be able to cope without them. However just because you are an adult does not mean that you are supposed to cope any better than you do. You may need to be strong for others but you still need to grieve and work through your own emotions. 

Being in aged care for more than 70 years, we have seen many people go through the loss of one parent or both. We have supported families through this time, especially where there is another parent to care for but the family is still grieving. 

We have seen people experience and work through the following stages which are a natural part of the grieving process:

Loneliness - a sense of being completely alone in the world is normal. Your parents provided a safe harbor, a place to go and rest when you needed respite from your own responsibilities. 

Security and stability – even though you are managing your own affairs like any adult, when a parent dies it is natural to feel that your stability and security have been rocked, and it doesn’t matter if you are 30 or 60 years old.

Loss of identity – you may find yourself wondering who you are in the world. Your parents may have been an anchor point, the linchpin for the family. Who is going to do this job now? Remember that you have been a son or daughter since you were born, you still are and always will be.

No purpose – some people have told us they feel like they have lost a sense of purpose. We have seen people work through this and it is natural and part of the grieving process.

Losing connection to the past – your parents were your past, representing your identity and the history that made you who you are. It is normal to question who you are in the world if you feel like you have lost a connection to your past. But you are a sum of that past, plus so many more experiences that you have embodied since you became an adult.

Guilt over unresolved conflicts – you are not alone if you have unresolved issues that were not put to rest before your parent died and you may even be feeling guilty and concerned that you didn’t fix things while they were alive. You may need the help of an empathetic professional to remain objective as you forgive and let go of past issues with your parent that may still be impacting you.

Feeling like there is a great void in the family – even if you have many siblings and children around you, you may still feel a big void. If you have had a close connection to your parent and they have been a big part of your life, then the void might feel like it will never close. But dynamics change and with time, the void disappears and is replaced by others in the family group who step in and step up to take on a new level of responsibility.

Feeling ready to take on a leadership role in the family – when a parent dies, whether you have had a patriarchal or matriarchal family dynamic, it is time for someone else to take that role. You may not be feeling ready but if that role has been passed to you, you will be ready to take it on, in your own good time.

Ways to cope with grief and awareness of how you work through this

In our experience, having cared for the elderly for over 70 years and having seen many families grieving over the loss of a loved one, here are some things to consider during this sensitive time:

  1. Allow the process of grief – allow grief as it comes. Don’t deny it or avoid it as it will sit around inside you and create havoc if not expressed. You don’t need to always put on a brave face for your children – they are better off seeing you grieve and eventually recover from it.
  2. Allow time – grief comes in waves, first larger then smaller with time. Eventually it will dissipate if you allow it to flow through you. With time, even though the memory of a parent may make you feel melancholy, the grief becomes less. 
  3. Support - reach out to people for support if this is what you need. Seek the services of a professional grief counsellor who can remain objective. Allow yourself to be supported by those you love and who love you. Reach out to your loved ones, including your children.
  4. Acceptance – acceptance will come in time and is an important part of the cycle. The death of a parent may be the natural order of life but this does not take away from the intensity of the grief you experience. 
  5. Patience - your relationship with your elderly parent is personal and unique and your grief about their death is just as personal and unique. It will take as long as it takes to recover from your grief. Give yourself the gift of patience.
  6. Take good care of yourself – be gentle on yourself, allow yourself tears, listen to music, go for walks, talk to close friends. During this sensitive time, people may turn to substances such as alcohol to drown out difficult emotions. This can lead to delaying the grief process so take good care of yourself and do your best to prevent bad habits from taking hold.
  7. Be careful of the “grief habit” – on a different note, be aware of this cycle. Research suggests that people who never let go of their loss, may be activating neurons in the reward centres of the brain, firing up these memories because it feeds an addictive behaviour. Without denying yourself the grieving process, you may want to consider this research if you are finding your grief is not abating.

St Louis had been looking after elderly parents for more than 70 years

If you have lost a parent and are coping with grief but still have another parent needing care, St Louis can help you, your family and the person needing care. We know there is no right way or right amount of time to deal with grief, but we understand how to support people through the process of grief. St Louis have been looking after the needs of elderly parents across Adelaide for more than 70 years. 

We have a boutique aged care residence in Parkside, retirement units in Blyth Street, Parkside and we help many elderly parents live comfortably and safely at home with our home care packages. Call St Louis today on 08 8332 0950 for a no obligation and confidential conversation about the care needs of your elderly parent.