Grief and Recovery: Overcoming Guilt and Loss After the Death of an Adult Child

i-aging As we go through life, we imagine that there is a natural order to things. We are born and raised by our parents, who seem to stay the same age while we are young, until we suddenly realize they’re aging, just like we are. Then we progress together until, one day, we have to say goodbye to them. In turn, our own children are growing, and are fully awakening to our own mortality. We expect that they will one day say goodbye to us and live out the rest of their lives after we’re gone. The idea of that natural order is so ingrained that we have trouble comprehending the possibility of a disruption. In fact, the thought of outliving a child seems truly impossible. So when it happens and we’re forced to face the death of an adult child, it is a searing tragedy that is marked by guilt, loss, isolation, and grief.

Losing a child at any age is a terrible tragedy, and one that happens far too often. When losing an adult child, the grief can be compounded by guilt, by the loss of a friend, by the contemplation of our own mortality, and by the reality that the end of life is perceived as progressively less tragic the older a person gets. But for the parent, that doesn’t make the loss any less wrenching. An older adult who loses a grown child, whether due to sickness, accident, suicide, or anything else, has fewer places to turn and can feel more alone. It’s a grief we rarely recognize, complicated as it is by thousands of swirling factors, blowing like fallen leaves around a slate-grey winter sky. This grief can turn into depression and sickness if it is left to molder.

If you have lost a grown child, understanding your grief and coming to terms with your loss takes patience, strength, and courage. Even though your child was grown, you may regret the amount of independence that they had. You may feel tremendous guilt that you did not magically protect your child from harm. You may find yourself saying, “I’m the parent; my job was to keep my child safe and I did not protect them.” You may even irrationally blame yourself for their death just to have an answer for the painful question, “Why did my child die?” While you were not responsible for the death, these thoughts can fuel your anger, depression, and even marital or partner stress. If you are a single parent, you may have to make difficult decisions without input or support. Feelings of isolation and loneliness can surface even when you have supportive family or friends. One way to decrease these feelings of isolation is to inquire about grief support, whether on an individual basis or as part of a group. Sharing your story with others can mitigate loneliness by allowing the expression of grief in an atmosphere of acceptance.    

Understanding Your Guilt

When facing the death of an adult child, you are often overcome with guilt, due to both the broad sense of injustice in outliving your child, and possibly due to particular circumstances of their passing. There are two kinds of guilt here: situational guilt, where you feel as though you could or should have been able to prevent it, and universal guilt, which is more of a metaphysical guilt.

    • Situational guilt: Sometimes, when an older child dies, there are circumstances that we tell ourselves we could have prevented. The “if only” game is very seductive. “If only” I had called my child more often; “if only” I had been kinder, nicer, more caring, then the outcome would have been different. Problems with drugs or alcohol, involvement with crime, or a suicide can make us think that we could have done something different. This is a cruel sort of guilt, because a parent can’t be involved in the day-to-day life of an adult child. An adult person makes their own decisions and, in the case of suicide, it often occurs in conjunction with a mental illness. Still, the guilt can be felt regarding what one did, did not do, or wished to have done. The surviving parent can become obsessed by all the experiences they had with their child that may have contributed to their death. Guilt may be a normal part of the traumatic grief experience, but it’s still unfair. Often this guilt is exacerbated by a polite or embarrassed wall of silence from friends and family, who, in their desire to make the bereaved parents feel better, encourage them to “get over it” rather than talk about their complex feelings of loneliness, sorrow, guilt, and fear.
    • Universal guilt: This can be combined with the former, and is present in nearly all instances, whether our adult child dies from sickness, or an accident, or crime, or anything else. We irrationally feel that we somehow put them in that position, that our genes caused the cancer, that if they hadn’t been put on this earth, they wouldn’t have suffered. We feel guilty for being on the wrong side of the ledger and upending the natural order of things. We feel like we have done something wrong. This is as irrational as it is almost inevitable.

Becoming aware that you were not responsible for the death of your adult child is not an easy goal to achieve. To heal takes time. Many bereaved parents fear that healing and forgetting are correlated. To feel less pain may not be acceptable because the parent fears losing their child again and the pain is their connection with their dead child. This grief process is complex. Friends, family, and professionals must understand the pace at which the bereaved parent can move into their grief.   

The Sadness of Losing a Friend

Parents can never be fully prepared for the death of a child. Regardless of the cause, the death of a child is overwhelming. As children grow older, their relationship with their parents changes. The hands-on caretaking has been replaced by the sharing of advice or mutual interests. Many parents acknowledge that the relationship with adult children evolves into a deeper connection, a friendship that is unlike friendships with peers. It is difficult for many parents to find the words that describe the maturational process of their children into adults. After all the trials and tribulations associated with childhood and adolescence, the graduations, the search for jobs or a career, or a relationship — it feels like all has come to naught with their death.  

Secondary losses may also trigger intense sorrow as the assumptions you have made about their future will never materialize. The grandchildren the child may have conceived will never sit on your lap; the career the child may have built no longer has any importance; the comfort you may have expected in your older age from your grown child fades away. What is left is the big “missing.” How will you ever manage to survive the loss of your child?

Depression, Anxiety, and the Mental Health Dangers of Isolation

As an older adult, losing an adult child can be a devastating experience. If your child had a family of their own, the pain experienced by their spouse and children may take priority over your feelings. Because you are older and have experienced other losses, you may be in a position to comfort them, but who is there to comfort you?

This can lead to isolation, causing you to separate yourself from your child’s family, so as not to impose on their sadness. Even if you aren’t physically isolated, you may feel like you aren’t in a place to share your sadness freely. This isolation often makes grief seem like a shameful experience. You may even find yourself thinking of your own mortality and death. Thoughts of suicide may cross your mind as you sense that you don’t have anything to live for now that your child has died. These feelings and thoughts are related to depression, and should you experience these thoughts, you may want to speak with a grief counselor.

Bereavement-related depression can happen no matter what the relationship, whether the loss was a spouse, a parent, a friend, or a child. If you don’t take steps to understand your grief, it can become dangerous. If you are feeling depressed over the loss of an adult child, or if you have a loved one who’s showing signs of depression, it’s time to get help. Grief, though painful, is a natural occurrence and addressing it is part of the healing process.

Grief Counseling: Open Up to People Who Understand

Grief is a uniquely personal experience. No two people experience grief the same way. We all have the weight of our own histories and relationships with those we have lost, and other factors like family, age, and circumstances ensure that no one ever has the same experience. Unfortunately, that thought—”no one knows what I’m feeling”— triggers feelings of isolation. To feel isolated and alone may be part of the grief experience for you. However, it is helpful to reach out to others in the community who may be dealing with similar feelings. Knowing what helpful resources are available in your community can be a lifeline.

Grief counseling at Institute on Aging is a program where people who are suffering as a result of a loss can share their experience with others. Our trained clinical staff is here to guide people in their loss, to provide a safe space for sadness, and to help people understand and experience their grief. When you meet with people who are also suffering, a community is formed. A place is created where you can truly express your sorrow. You do not have to grieve alone.

At Institute on Aging, we offer several programs, including:

  • 8-Week Traumatic Loss Grief Group
  • 8-Week Advanced Traumatic Loss Grief Group
  • Saturday Morning Drop-In Grief Group
  • Individual Traumatic Loss Grief Support
  • Monthly Traumatic Loss Drop-In Group

No matter what stage of grief you are in, there are people who understand and are prepared to help. Grief is a process. It isn’t here one day and gone the next. Grief doesn’t disappear. The death of an adult child will always be a part of you. You simply learn to live with loss.

It’s important to remember: The death of an adult child does not define them and their death won’t define you, either. They lived a life regardless of the length of the life. No one should be defined solely by their death. Your adult child was so much more than their death. With the help of grief counseling, understanding peers, and a strong support group, you can honor the life of your adult child by not letting their death destroy you. We can do this, together. Contact us today to learn more about our grief counseling and how we can help you live your grief in as healthy a way as possible.


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Dr. Patrick Arbore

Dr. Patrick Arbore, ED.d, is the Director and Founder of the Center for Elderly Suicide Prevention and Grief Related Services. A nationally recognized expert on suicide and a powerful advocate for mental health services for older adults, Dr. Arbore is a role model for living life with true compassion. He's an experienced presenter and has held seminars and workshops on topics relevant to older adults’ mental health.

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