Coping When A Parent Dies by Dr. Herb Tannenbaum

Every year 1.6 million adults – 5 percent of the population- lose a parent. Parental loss is the single most common cause of bereavement in this country.

When an adult loses a parent, empathy and support from friends, though helpful tends to be short lived. A 40 year old man still crying three months after the death of his mother is likely to be looked upon with suspicion. He is cautioned to pull himself together and get back into the world of living.

Experts have identified several reason why adults feel the impact of death so strongly.  These include the following:

  • Feeling that they have lost a relationship that cannot be replaced. You can have only one mother and father.
  • No one loves or knows them in the seam way that parents do.
  • Unfinished business or unresolved issues with their parents become burdensome and haunting after the parents’ death.

The parent/child relationship is possibly the strongest bond in existence. Parents whether one likes them or not, are special people. One’s relationship with them-good, bad or indifferent- cannon be fully duplicated with anyone else. Thus, when a parent dies, something special and irreplaceable dies, too; the response of the children can be intense, complex and prolonged.

Perhaps, the key to the trauma of a parents’ death is that every death leaves behind unfinished business. This causes feelings of despair, helplessness and guilt which at times can be overwhelming to process. One of the ways to avoid tis after the death of a parent is to try to resolve as many issues as possible while your parents are still alive. This does not mean that one has to enter confrontational warfare with a parent. Rather, it means, becoming authentic and expressing certain perceptions and feelings to a parent in a way that increase the probability that the parent will not become defensive and also being open to hearing what the parent has to say, accepting the parents’ reality and hoping that you have expressed your point of view in a lucid manner so your truth can be heard. Expression does not guarantee acceptance by a parent. but it does allow a person to feel that they have made a conscious attempt to communicate their feeling.

Regardless of age, we are always our parents children. Thus, the child in us is deeply affected when our parents die, whether it be from natural causes or a sudden event.

If, in dealing with the death of a parent, one faces overwhelming feelings of guilt or despair, it is appropriate to seek professional help. Psychotherapy can be a valuable resource in dealing with grief. feelings of loss or despair and coming to peace with the ultimate separation. It can also help you resolve the unfinished business and spur emotional growth. 


Herb Tannenbaum, Ph.D. can be reached at


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