Bereavement On Becoming An Orphan In Adulthood

Bereavement On Becoming An Orphan In Adulthood

Ros Welch

The ‘stages’ often talked about by bereavement therapists of; shock and denial, anger, bargaining, depression and acceptance are just a guide, we all grieve differently. “The stages are responses to feelings that can last for minutes or hours as we flip in and out of one and then another. We do not enter and leave each individual stage in a linear fashion. We may feel one, then another, and back again to the first one” (KR)

Some of us have had anticipatory grief, watching a parent deteriorate through illness, seeing a little less of the real them with every visit or a reversal of roles as they need nursing care.

You may have been anticipating the loss of the second parent but the knowledge that with the loss of your final parent you become the older generation can be just one of the issues that brings unexpected feelings from guilt to abandonment.

I have chosen some poignant phrases from two excellent books which may resonate with your own particular situation.

“We may function quite well as an adult but it is not until we lose the last parent that we discover just how close to the surface the child within has been lurking”(JB)

Of all the relationships we experience, our relationship with our parents is the first significant one.

“Our parents values and their experiences are tightly bound into our lifes history tangled with threads that we weave for ourselves as our individual character evolves”(JB)

When you lose your last parent you lose a significant link to the past, to your own history, a disconnection with ancestry….a shield between death and us, we have become the older generation.

As long as one parent is alive you can still be the child but, when they are gone its like…shit; I have to do this myself!

“With that death you can no longer alter the relationship, change what they thought of you, win their approval”(JB)

“No-one to disapprove or disagree but no-one to applaud or be there for support”(JB)

With each death that we experience we learn that no bereavement is isolated, each death evokes renewed grieving for previous loss. The death of the last parent in particular often reactivates mourning for the first parental loss.

We often do not properly mourn the first parent as we are so pre-occupied with the surviving parent. It is not always obvious which parent we are mourning when the last one dies.


If the parents gave extra support to the ‘child’ in adulthood, following a divorce or through addictions, the loss may be more difficult to manage.

Guilt may be felt if the ‘child’ does not believe that the care they gave their parents in later years equalled the care that they were given in their childhood”(JB)

A difficult relationship with one or both parents may cause feelings of anger or rage, that there is no time left for apologies or explanations.

“Life is unfair. Death is unfair. Anger is a natural reaction to the unfairness of loss. Unfortunately anger can isolate you from friends and family at the precise time you may need them most” (KR)

Loss changes us, we cannot go back to who we were, we must get used to the new reality “Acceptance is not about liking a situation. It is about acknowledging all that has been lost and learning to live with that loss”(KR)

The grieving process is helped by getting to know our parents as individuals; to see them as products of their own upbringing and life experience, it allows us to think of them gently.

It is about exploring the changes that this loss has made, the impact on you, your family, your finances, accepting the change.

It is recalling both unpleasant and meaningful memories, internalising them so that the ‘child’ can move on.

“Acceptance is a process that we experience, not a final stage with an end point”(KR)

(KR) – Elisabeth Kubler-Ross ‘On Grief & Greiving’ 2005 Simon & Schuster.
(JB) – Jane Brooks ‘Midlife Orphan’ 1999 Berkely

If you have suffered a bereavement and are seeking counselling or psychotherapy in the Aylesbury area, please feel free to call me to discuss a possible initial appointment on 07900 580 300.