Your relationship with your parents shapes who you are. When they’re gone, a meaningful part of who you are is suddenly lost.
No wonder it’s so difficult for some to make the transition into this new stage of adulthood.
Yet, an orphaned adult may find that society, in general, doesn’t truly recognize their loss nor appreciate the grief they feel. After all, they’re adults, not little children. Their parents may not have been old, but they were older in age.
Somehow, these facts cause others to invalidate the grief orphaned adults feel. They’re simply assumed to have the ability to deal much quicker and easier with the death of their parents than if they were much younger.
But is it really that simple?
More Than the Loss of a Loved One
When you’re an adult and lose your parents in death, you lose so much more than a close relative, even more than a loved one. Being an orphaned adult affects you in ways you perhaps hadn’t thought about before—materially, socially, and personally.
Some of the losses you may face include the following:
Loss of childhood home and keepsakes
For some, it becomes necessary to sell the family home after the death of their parents. In the transition, treasured items often get lost or passed on with the estate. All those things have memories connected to them. It can be very painful to handle those final tasks,
Loss of family history, traditions, and social connections
Your parents may have held the family together socially. They may have taken charge of handling special events or their home may have simply been a welcome gathering spot for the family. When those dynamics suddenly change, the change is deeply felt, especially if no one else in the family can take over those functions.
Loss of a storehouse of memories
Parents hold memories of you as a child that nobody else has. Your definition of yourself is connected to your relationship with your parents. It’s like a mirror into your past. Their deaths may challenge you to redefine yourself.
Loss of safety, security, and support
For many, their parents’ unconditional love made them feel safe and secure, even as an adult. You may not have realized how much space they occupied in your life and how important their support was to you until they were gone. It can be overwhelming to feel so alone now.
Loss of a moral anchor
When the “keepers of family wisdom” are gone, it can feel like the end of an era. Who will answer your questions about the past now? Who will be able to give you the wise advice you so often needed? And who can share their valuable life experiences to keep you morally grounded? Suddenly, you’ve become the person in that role for others to look up to. You may not feel ready for that.
Aside from all of that, you may also become keenly aware of your own mortality. That alone can be a sobering—and perhaps frightening—realization.
How to Cope With Being an Orphaned Adult
There’s no right or wrong way of grieving and dealing with being an orphaned adult. What you need and what you want during this time of your life is different for each person. But consider a few helpful points for coping with your loss.
1. Acknowledge the enormity of the loss
It is a big deal, even if some feel it shouldn’t be. Grief is painful, no matter how old your parents were. Don’t minimize the loss or let others do so. Be gentle with yourself and give yourself as much as time as you need to grieve, without adding additional stress to the situation.
2. Take care of yourself
Stress can affect your mind and body. Make your health and well-being a priority. Exercise, eat well, and get sufficient rest. Without good self-care, your body and mind can’t function well.
3. Pace yourself when handling tasks
Sorting through your parent’s possessions, managing matters connected to their estate, and organizing and arranging services are exhausting jobs. Make sure you don’t overstretch yourself. Do what you can, focusing on the things that must be done first. Ask for support when you need it and accept it when it’s offered.
4. Reach out to others
There will probably be plenty of others that are grieving the loss of your parents in their own way. Reach out and connect with family and friends. Join a support group of people in the same situation as you. It’s empowering when you feel understood.
5. Get involved in something meaningful
It can bring great comfort when your loss is a catalyst for helping others. For example, you could donate some of your parent’s belongings to charity or use the skills you’ve learned from your parents to help others. To find new meaning in your life, you may also want to widen out and try new things, enjoy new experiences, or spend more time with friends.
6. Take over or reinstate one of your parent’s traditions
There’s no better way to honor the memory of your parents than by continuing or reviving one of their cherished traditions. Some may feel that letting go of everything connected to your parents and moving on would be better. But it can be healthy to allow your parents to continue having an impact on your family’s traditions and rituals in meaningful ways.
Above all, remember that your parents’ lives may have ended, but their relationship with you has not. Their voices live on in your mind and heart. If you need help working through the transition, make time to share your concerns with a counselor or therapist. Even as an orphaned adult, your parents’ pride, encouragement, and advice can continue to inspire you to move forward.