Losing a parent


Death is the single inevitability of life, yet few people are prepared for it; relationship counsellor Suzette Reed on coping with the death of a parent

Buddhism has the maxim, “we are alive therefore we will die”. This is a simple and obvious truth of existence but one which we struggle to come to terms with. Death and dying are often a big taboo in families, who would readily discuss other life changing experiences.

There is the natural expectation that parents will die before their children but nothing really prepares adult children for the loss of this relationship. When parents die we have to face a changed reality. The people who have brought us into this world and have known us for all our life are no longer there, so what is our place in this family when we become elders, who do we look to for support? Adults who have lost a parent will often talk of the intense loneliness they feel and some describe themselves as “orphans”, remembering the feelings and fears of early childhood.


“Many people struggle to find words to support the bereaved”

The death of an older person is not often recognised as having the impact that the loss of a young life has, and there may be the expectation from friends and colleagues that the bereaved person should move on more quickly than they may feel able. In the face of death and loss many people struggle to find words to support the bereaved person and it may be easier to avoid contact or steer conversation away from emotionally difficult areas. This can be confusing and hurtful and, even if words are hard to find or clumsily expressed, it is so much better to acknowledge loss than to ignore it.


“There is no shame in sorrow, it is natural and necessary”

Understanding and accepting death takes time, even when decline and illness have been present for some time. Ceremony and ritual is common in all societies to mark the passage from life to death. Mourning is a process that allows the expression of loss and grief and, in many societies, brings families and communities together to find a shared experience of sadness. There are many different ways of mourning, and most are determined by cultural, religious and family customs and expectations. There is a human need to make meaning of the loss and acknowledge the relationship which has now ended.

In our increasingly secular culture it seems harder for people to find meaning or solace in religious ritual, and there has been a move away from funeral rites that grieve loss, to ceremony to celebrate the life of the deceased.

Both have their place and both can have elements of mourning but there is a risk of holding sorrow at bay by focusing on life and not on death. Celebration of life may be a more reflective experience, which needs time, where as grief is present and vivid and needs expression. If religious or community rites feel uncomfortable it is possible to find a meaningful way to grieve; make your own way, find the family sound for grief – whether this is words, songs, pictures, meals, plants – whatever works. There is no shame in sorrow, it is natural and necessary.


As time passes there may be sorrow for the family milestones that will be missed: new births, weddings and celebrations, as well as the personal family meanings – spring bulbs growing, summer light, whatever it may be.

There may be sorrow for things that have been said or done and for those that have been left unsaid; for the questions left unasked.

Death rarely comes neatly with all the loose ends tied up. Death resonates with all the most profound human experiences we have: a bit messy, confusing and full of emotion. The death of a parent leaves a legacy as well as a template for how we might move on.