Losing a parent is a deeply personal and challenging experience at any age, with no definitive worst or best age. Research shows the most common age range for losing a parent is 50-54 years old.
Losing a parent earlier in life can negatively impact self-esteem, psychosocial well-being, sleep, stress levels, sadness, mental health, behavior, education, and physical health. Grieving the loss of a parent in one’s 20s through 50s is difficult regardless of age.
To healthily adjust, the bereaved can benefit from adapting to the loss, seeking support, attending therapy, maintaining a connection to the deceased, and reinvesting in new relationships and activities. Prolonged acute grief may require professional bereavement counseling.
What is the worst age to lose a parent?
There is no worst or best age to lose a parent. At first glance, adult children may have the hardest. They have had decades to build close relationships with their parents. Saying goodbye to a lifelong confidant may leave a deep void. However, although young children may not fully understand the permanence of death, their development may suffer from having lost an attachment figure. Teenagers often rely heavily on parents for guidance and support during adolescence. The loss disrupts their stability at a vulnerable time. Therefore, losing a parent is difficult, no matter when it happens.
Comparisons of grief can’t capture the uniqueness of each person’s experience. What matters is offering compassion and support to all who mourn. The severity of the loss depends on the unique bond between parent and child and the support received from others.
Both children and adults need empathy and support to work through their grief.
What is the average age to lose a parent?
According to the United States Census Bureau 2011 survey, the most common age range in which people lost their mother was 50-54 (13.6%), and the most common age range in which people lost their father was also 50-54 (11.5%).
What are the psychological effects of losing a mother or father at a young age?
Studies show that there are 9 psychological effects of losing a mother or father at a young age.1–6
- Higher risk of mental health issues, including depression, anxiety, and post-traumatic stress symptoms (PTSD)
- Lower self-esteem
- Reduced psychosocial well-being from isolation and increased family duties.
- Sleep disturbances
- Increased stress from less financial stability within the family
- Sadness and grief
- More externalizing behavior
- More likely to drop out of school
- More physical health issues and somatic complaints
Considering how detrimentally the death of a father or mother affects their children, society must support children in grieving healthily.
What are the effects of losing a parent as a child in adulthood?
According to a 2013 study conducted at the University of Liverpool, the 6 effects of losing a parent as a child in adulthood are as follows.7
- Trust and relationship issues: Early disruption of a primary attachment can lead to difficulties in trusting others, affecting the adult’s ability to form and maintain intimate relationships.
- Low self-esteem: Losing parental guidance and affirmation during critical developmental stages can impact a child’s developing sense of self, resulting in lower self-esteem and self-worth in adulthood.
- Loneliness and isolation: Growing up without a parent can lead to loneliness and isolation, both in childhood and later in life.
- Difficulty expressing feelings: Not having adequate support or opportunities to process their grief during childhood might lead to struggles in emotional expression as adults.
- Continuity disruptions: The abrupt change in a child’s life following parental loss can cause long-term emotional difficulties and insecurity, creating challenges in adapting to new situations in adulthood.
- Social support impact: The absence of adequate social support following the loss, such as from family, friends, or community, can exacerbate the adverse effects of bereavement, leading to more social difficulties in adult life.
What are the psychological effects of losing a parent as a teenager?
According to the 2016 National Longitudinal Survey of Adolescent to Adult Health, which interviewed 20,745 students aged 13 to 19, there are 7 psychological effects of losing a parent as a teenager.8
- Lower self-esteem
- More behavioral problems
- Delinquency and violent crime
- Drug abuse
- Premature death, suicide attempts, and mental health issues, including depression
- Lower academic performance
- Earlier school withdrawals and lower interest in attending college
What are the long-term effects of losing a parent as a teenager?
The same 2016 longitudinal study using data from the National Longitudinal Survey of Adolescent to Adult Health reveals the following 5 long-term effects of losing a parent as a teenager.
- Economic disadvantages due to lower education levels
- Hesitancy to marriage
- More family conflicts
- More likely to live alone
- Higher depression rate
Is losing a parent in your 20s hard?
Yes, losing a parent in your 20s is challenging because such deaths are “off-time,” meaning they occur earlier than expected developmentally. Typically, you are the only one among your peer group grieving the loss of a parent so young. Without adequate social support from others who understand what you’re going through, it can feel intensely isolating and like no one understands the depth of your grief. This lack of support can make the grieving process much harder.
A 2015 study published in Sage Journals by researchers at the University of North Texas directly compared grief responses to parental loss between young adults in their 20s/30s and middle-aged adults in their 50s. The young adult group had significantly more difficulty adjusting and were more likely to experience symptoms of complicated grief.9
Is losing a parent in your 30s hard?
Yes, losing a parent in your 30s is hard because most people at your age expect their parents to live well into old age. There may be significant life changes like career, relationships, or having kids that your parent will miss out on, bringing you deep sadness.
Is losing a parent in your 40s hard?
Yes, losing a parent in your 40s, or at any age, is hard. In your 40s, you may have young kids, adding an extra layer of stress and sadness. Raising your children while also grieving the loss of your parent can feel overwhelming.
If your other parent is still living, they will be grieving losing their life partner. You may need to provide a widowed parent with more emotional, social, or financial support. This can also stir up feelings about your aging and mortality. “If they died so young, how long do I have?”
Is losing a parent in your 50s hard?
Yes, losing a parent in your 50s is hard, although you may have more emotional maturity to handle this than those in their 20s, 30s, or 40s, according to research.
In the 50s, the death of a parent can bring a stark awareness of one’s aging process and mortality. Regrets, unresolved issues, lost opportunities for reconciliation, or deeper connection may compound grief. Your parent’s premature death can also prompt introspection about your life achievements, goals, and future legacy.
How to deal with the grief of losing a parent – guide for children
In a 2015 study conducted at Long Island University, 19 adults were interviewed to reflect on what helped or hindered them in the years following their parents’ death in childhood. Researchers identified the following 5 factors that have helped bereaved children deal with the grief of losing a parent.10
- Adjustment to catastrophe: Adjusting adaptively requires switching between confronting the loss (“loss-oriented”) and avoiding it (“restoration-oriented”). Children can allow themselves to grieve the loss, process the emotions, and come to terms with the permanence of many life changes, such as growing up faster, taking on more responsibilities, missing out on relationships, and being treated differently by others. At the same time, they can also give themselves a break from the grief through distraction and focusing on other activities. This back-and-forth process allows children to cope without becoming overwhelmed.
- Support: Engaging in group activities and having friends who also have lost parents help support bereaved children’s grieving process.
- Therapy: The research has found that children benefit more from bereavement group therapy, while individual therapy is more advantageous later in life, pursued at children’s own decision.
- Continuing connection: Children are encouraged to continue the bonds with the deceased parents. For example, they can openly discuss the deceased, create a memory box, write letters, or celebrate special dates.
- Reinvestment: Children move forward by accepting the permanence of the parental loss while investing time and energy into new experiences, relationships, activities, and goals. For example, children can immerse themselves in school, maintain a routine, or develop new hobbies.
How to help a child grieve the loss of a parent?
Research shows that the following 11 tips can help a child grieve the loss of a parent.11–15
- Ask: Different children have different ways to grieve. We don’t know how to best help them unless we ask. Encourage them to talk. Don’t avoid talking about the loss of a parent or make it a taboo subject. Don’t pretend nothing happened or assume to know what’s best for the child. Instead, ask them how they feel and what they need, but if they are not ready, respect their silence.
- Listen: When they are ready to talk, listen attentively. Help them put their feelings into words if they struggle to express them. Say, “I want to be able to understand what you are thinking,” or “I need your help understanding what you are feeling.”
- Validate: When children express sadness, acknowledge and validate their feelings, “It’s ok to cry” or “It’s normal to feel sad.”
- Answer accurately: Young children may not fully comprehend the permanence of death. They may have a lot of questions. Provide age-appropriate information and explanations about the death. Be honest using simple, straightforward, and age-appropriate language. Encourage children’s questions.
- Allow mourning participation: Allow children to participate in mourning rituals and funeral services if they wish to help them cope with feelings and understand the death.
- Maintain routines: Familiar routines provide children with security and stability.
- Discipline to teach: When disciplining, focus on teaching rather than demanding compliance. Studies show that using reasoning to discipline works the best.
- Help retain memories: Good memories provide great comfort to children. Help them retain the good memories that will stay with them forever, even after the parent has passed away. Ask them, “What is your favorite memory of them?” Teach them to retrieve this memory whenever they miss their parents. Creating an album or a memory box is another great way to keep good memories.
- Reassure: Assure children are in a safe space and will be cared for.
- Check-in regularly: Check in with them occasionally, particularly on occasions such as Mother’s Day or Father’s Day. Ask how they are doing. Show that you care and think about them.
- Seek help: Ask family members and close friends for extra support for the grieving parent and child. Also, seek preventive professional help if needed.
What are words of sympathy for a child who loses a parent?
Here are 27 examples of words of sympathy for a child who loses a parent.
- This must be very tough.
- How are you feeling?
- You will be in my thoughts.
- Do you want to talk?
- I’m so sorry for your loss.
- I’m here for you.
- Do you want a hug?
- Do you want to be left alone?
- Is there anything I can do for you?
- It is ok to feel sad.
- It is ok to cry. You are not weak.
- It is normal to be scared.
- Do you have any memories you want to share?
- You can come to me whenever you need to.
- I love you.
- You don’t have to talk. I will just sit next to you.
- You can talk to me any time you want.
- She loved you so much.
- You don’t have to forget her.
- She would be proud of you.
- Yes, it hurts. I’m so sorry.
- Do you have any beautiful memories you can share?
- He was an amazing person and an amazing dad.
- My heartfelt condolence.
- This must be so hard.
- It is normal to have mixed feelings.
- I am so sorry about the sad news.
What not to say to a child who has lost a parent
Here are 10 things not to say to a child who has lost a parent.
- Don’t be sad. The pain will go away.
- Let it go.
- Don’t cry. Your dad needs you to be strong now.
- It’s your fault.
- Just carry on with your life.
- Time heals all wounds.
- Now you have to be a big girl.
- Crying won’t help.
- Your mother wouldn’t want to see you cry.
- Your mother’s passing is a blessing since she no longer suffers.
What are the stages of grief?
The 4 stages of grief first proposed by psychiatrists John Bowlby and Colin Murray Parkes are shock-numbness, yearning-searching, disorganization-despair, and reorganization.
The 5 stages of grief, as subsequently adapted by Kübler-Ross from that theory, are denial, anger, bargaining, depression, and acceptance.16,17
This expanded theory of grief gained widespread recognition and has been broadly applied to various forms of loss, including how children cope with the loss of a parent.
How long does grief last?
Normal grief lasts between 6 to 12 months, as per the DSM-V’s (Diagnostic Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, 5th Edition) expert consensus panel, which also sets this duration as the cut-off for prolonged grief disorder (PGD).18
Does grief make you tired?
Yes, grief makes you tired and drained of energy, especially if you experience painful emotions, poor sleep, inactivity, appetite change, or stress. Here are 5 reasons why grief makes you tired.
- Emotional exhaustion: The process of grieving and experiencing painful emotions like sadness, anger, guilt, etc., is mentally and emotionally taxing. Coping with loss consumes a lot of mental energy and leaves you feeling worn out.
- Poor sleep: Grief can significantly disrupt sleep, leading to tossing and turning through the night. This lack of restorative sleep causes physical and mental fatigue.
- Changes in activity: When grieving, people often withdraw from everyday activities, leading to deconditioning and low energy. Staying active requires more effort.
- Change in appetite: Grief often suppresses appetite, which can cause nutritional deficiencies that sap your energy. Some grievers also comfort eat, leading to energy crashes.
- Stress hormones: The grief response floods the body with stress hormones like cortisol for extended periods. This fight, flight, or freeze response mechanism can drain energy reserves and weaken the immune system, amplifying fatigue.
Does grief ever go away?
According to a 2009 review published in the World Psychiatry Journal, grief never entirely goes away for most people. Initially, acute grief manifests, marked by intense emotions, a focus on the deceased, and challenges in daily functioning. Over time, this evolves into integrated grief, where memories of the deceased evoke sadness and yearning intermittently without constantly occupying thoughts or hindering daily activities.
However, if acute grief continues for more than 6 months at a disabling level, professional treatment may be necessary as this could indicate prolonged grief disorder.19
What is prolonged grief disorder?
Prolonged grief disorder, also known as complicated grief or complex grief, is a mental health condition characterized by intense and persistent grief that causes significant impairment in a person’s ability to function after the death of a loved one. The grief reactions go beyond the typical mourning period and can persist for months or even years after the loss of a loved one.
Can losing a parent cause trauma?
Yes, losing a parent can cause trauma. The extent of trauma experienced from losing a parent largely depends on the family dynamics and parent-child relationships before the death, as well as the ability to maintain or rebuild the household’s stability and relationships afterward.
What is the hardest family member to lose?
According to the Social Readjustment Rating Scale (SRRS), the hardest family member to lose is the spouse or life partner (e.g., husband or wife), whose death is ranked the most stressful of all possible losses.20
What is an adult orphan?
An adult orphan is an adult who has lost both parents, typically through death. This term recognizes the significance of losing parents regardless of the child’s age. The feelings of loss, grief, and bereavement do not diminish just because one is an adult.
What do you do the first Christmas after the death of your parent?
The first Christmas after the death of your parent can be particularly challenging because the holiday season often emphasizes family and togetherness. Here are 7 tips on how to get through the first Christmas without your Mom or Dad.
- Make room for your grief: Allow yourself grief at Christmas.
- Plan ahead: Think about how you want to spend the day. You might continue special traditions to honor their memory or do something completely different.
- Seek supportive loved ones: Spend time with supportive friends or family who understand your loss and don’t expect you to feel festive if you don’t want to.
- Memorialize your parent: You can incorporate a special tribute to your parents, like lighting a candle or hanging a unique ornament.
- Set boundaries: It’s okay to say no to events or gatherings if you don’t feel up to them.
- Have self-compassion: Take care of yourself physically and emotionally. Get enough rest, eat well, exercise, and engage in pleasant activities.
- Seek help if needed: If you find it too difficult to cope, consider seeking help from a therapist or psychologist for bereavement counseling.
- 1.Rotheram-Borus MJ, Weiss R, Alber S, Lester P. Adolescent Adjustment Before and After HIV-Related Parental Death. Journal of Consulting and Clinical Psychology. Published online 2005:221-228. doi:10.1037/0022-006x.73.2.221
- 2.Harris ES. Adolescent bereavement following the death of a parent: An exploratory study. Child Psych Hum Dev. Published online 1991:267-281. doi:10.1007/bf00705931
- 3.Tremblay GC, Israel AC. Children’s adjustment to parental death. Clinical Psychology: Science and Practice. Published online 1998:424-438. doi:10.1111/j.1468-2850.1998.tb00165.x
- 4.Berg L, Rostila M, Hjern A. Parental death during childhood and depression in young adults – a national cohort study. Child Psychology Psychiatry. Published online April 5, 2016:1092-1098. doi:10.1111/jcpp.12560
- 5.Cas AG, Frankenberg E, Suriastini W, Thomas D. The Impact of Parental Death on Child Well-being: Evidence From the Indian Ocean Tsunami. Demography. Published online February 27, 2014:437-457. doi:10.1007/s13524-014-0279-8
- 6.Dowdney L. Annotation: Childhood Bereavement Following Parental Death. Child Psychology Psychiatry. Published online October 2000:819-830. doi:10.1111/1469-7610.00670
- 7.Ellis J, Dowrick C, Lloyd-Williams M. The long-term impact of early parental death: lessons from a narrative study. J R Soc Med. Published online February 2013:57-67. doi:10.1177/0141076812472623
- 8.Feigelman W, Rosen Z, Joiner T, Silva C, Mueller AS. Examining longer-term effects of parental death in adolescents and young adults: Evidence from the National Longitudinal Survey of Adolescent to Adult Health. Death Studies. Published online November 4, 2016:133-143. doi:10.1080/07481187.2016.1226990
- 9.Hayslip B Jr, Pruett JH, Caballero DM. The “How” and “When” of Parental Loss in Adulthood. Omega (Westport). Published online April 8, 2015:3-18. doi:10.1177/0030222814568274
- 10.Koblenz J. Growing From Grief. Omega (Westport). Published online March 10, 2015:203-230. doi:10.1177/0030222815576123
- 11.Osterweis M, Solomon F, Green M. Bereavement during childhood and adolescence. In: In Bereavement: Reactions, Consequences, and Care. National Academies Press; 1984.
- 12.Corr CA. Bereavement, Grief, and Mourning in Death-Related Literature for Children. Omega (Westport). Published online June 2004:337-363. doi:10.2190/0ruk-j18n-9400-bhav
- 13.Heath MA, Leavy D, Hansen K, Ryan K, Lawrence L, Gerritsen Sonntag A. Coping With Grief. Intervention in School and Clinic. Published online May 2008:259-269. doi:10.1177/1053451208314493
- 14.Black D. Coping with loss: Bereavement in childhood. BMJ. Published online March 21, 1998:931-933. doi:10.1136/bmj.316.7135.931
- 15.SOFKA CJ. SOCIAL SUPPORT “INTERNETWORKS,” CASKETS FOR SALE, AND MORE: THANATOLOGY AND THE INFORMATION SUPERHIGHWAY. Death Studies. Published online November 1997:553-574. doi:10.1080/074811897201778
- 16.Parkes CM. Coping with loss: Bereavement in adult life. BMJ. Published online March 14, 1998:856-859. doi:10.1136/bmj.316.7134.856
- 17.BOWLBY J. Processes of mourning. Int J Psychoanal. 1961;42:317-340. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/13872076
- 18.Prigerson HG, Horowitz MJ, Jacobs SC, et al. Prolonged Grief Disorder: Psychometric Validation of Criteria Proposed for DSM-V and ICD-11. Brayne C, ed. PLoS Med. Published online August 4, 2009:e1000121. doi:10.1371/journal.pmed.1000121
- 19.ZISOOK S, SHEAR K. Grief and bereavement: what psychiatrists need to know. World Psychiatry. Published online June 2009:67-74. doi:10.1002/j.2051-5545.2009.tb00217.x
- 20.Schwarzer R, Luszczynska A. Stressful life events. In: Handbook of Psychology: Health Psychology. John Wiley & Sons, Inc.; 2013:29–56.