Coping With Emotions

Coping With the Death of an Adult Child

Coping with the death of an adult child is difficult and less often the focus than spouses or couples who lose young children. Make sure you're getting the support your need during this unbearable time.

No matter their age, your kids are always your babies. When the worst happens, however, you may find fewer resources for coping with the death of an adult child from cancer. Maybe friends and family members gravitate toward your child’s spouse and children, and you feel neglected. Your grief during this time is strong, sometimes overwhelmingly so, and it’s important to find support for yourself.

The relationship you may have had with your child before cancer varies widely. You might have heavily relied on your child to help you, or you might have been your child’s caregiver throughout her illness. Maybe you lived far apart and only saw each other on holidays. No matter the situation, you also need help getting through the loss.

Take Care of Yourself

CancerCare reminds you not to neglect your health or welfare. It may be in your nature to jump in and help your child’s family — cooking meals, cleaning, chauffeuring the kids. Just be sure not to overdo it and exhaust yourself. Offer the help you can, but allow yourself moments to cry or sit quietly. You also don’t want to take on so much that you’re avoiding your own period of grieving.

Maybe it’s more in your nature to withdraw and be alone. Maybe you feel guilty or angry with yourself. Having survivor’s guilt is normal, as is feeling angry at the world. Regardless of your feelings, keep eating and sleeping consistently to keep up your strength.

Reach out for Support

Relationships with your child’s family may grow stronger or become strained as you’re all trying to cope with the loss. Reach out when possible and try to comfort each other, offering support all around. Likewise, your relationship with your other children may grow stronger or become strained. Help each other when you can, but also respect each other’s space.

You can also look beyond your family to people in your place of worship or turn to support groups. Most cancer centers and hospices offer some bereavement counseling or groups for parents who have lost a child. If you feel you aren’t moving through the stages of grief, you may want to see a counselor one-on-one or with your spouse.

Take Time to Remember

Even when you make it through the first few months, coping with the death of an adult child continues through each holiday and birthday that comes. Talk to your family about whether they would like to set up a special remembrance or tradition to honor your loved one. You can also choose to do this on your own.

You can set up special donations in honor of your child or create a place in your home to remember them. Plant a tree or flowers in your garden as a memorial, and hang your favorite photos of special times you spent together.

All parents feel they shouldn’t outlive their children, so it’s devastating to face a reality where your adult child is no longer around. Be patient with yourself and acknowledge your feelings. Reach out to the people who understand your pain and who are able to support you through it.

Grief is never easy, but taking the first step can be. The UVA Cancer Center offers support resources for people experiencing an overwhelming loss.

Learn More
  • Alan Fresco

    I was diagnosed with adenocarcinoma (stage 3) just under 3 years ago in my early 60’s. My elderly mother died shortly after I was diagnosed. I live on the other side of the world to where she lived, but I know she was quite concerned about me.
    I just wanted to be left alone and not be fussed over. My view is that the parent of an adult with cancer should “give the sufferer space” and not interfere.
    Obviously help if you are asked to help; otherwise don’t interfere.

Patricia Chaney
Patricia Chaney