How The Loss Of A Parent Can Affect Your Mental Health

Our parents are among the first people we see when we enter the world, and they are often the first people that we love. Many children look up to their parents, and aspire to be like them when they grow up. Others could have a strained relationship with their parents, and might wish that their circumstances were different. For better or for worse, there's no denying that our parents play a substantial role in our life stories. When our parents are so influential, it's difficult to accept that we might lose them one day, leaving us to pick up the pieces of our grief.

If you have lost one or both parents, you aren't alone. It might feel that way sometimes, like on Mother's Day or Father's Day when you see people celebrating their living parents, but the reality is there are many people who understand the pain of your loss. According to the Childhood Bereavement Network, approximately 1 in 20 young people will have experienced the death of one or both parents by the age of 16. The chances of losing a parent also increase with age. For individuals between the ages of 45 and 49, 45% have lost their father, and 26% have lost their mother, per the United States Census Bureau

Although there are many others who understand what you're going through, that doesn't take away the pain that comes from losing a parent. In some cases, you might even find that losing them impacts your mental health.

What does losing a parent do to someone psychologically?

When a parent dies, you may feel a wide range of complex emotions. You might even have unspoken words left that you wish you had the chance to say to them. Grief impacts everyone differently.

Psychotherapist Beth Tyson tells Psych Central that there are several factors contributing to the severity of mental health impact after the loss of a parent. Some factors include the age of the parent and the age of the child, the state of the relationship with the parent, the amount of social support received following the death, and any pre-existing mental health conditions or past exposure to trauma.

A 2021 study published in The Association for Child and Adolescent Mental Health observed an increased risk of mental health concerns in people who lost their parents between birth and age 18. For those whose parents died of external causes, the risk appeared to be even greater.

Another psychotherapist, Andrea Dorn, explains how a parent's death can play a part in the development of post-traumatic stress disorder, as reported by Psych Central. A grieving individual may also experience depression, panic attacks, health anxiety, separation anxiety, generalized anxiety, and other mental health issues.

If you or someone you know needs help with mental health, please contact the Crisis Text Line by texting HOME to 741741, call the National Alliance on Mental Illness helpline at 1-800-950-NAMI (6264), or visit the National Institute of Mental Health website.

How to cope with the grief of losing a parent

Although the pain from the loss of a parent never truly goes away, you can learn to cope with your grief in healthy ways. Everyday Health notes the importance of working with your emotions instead of fighting against them. When you lose a parent, you may feel emotions like disbelief, sadness, anger, anxiety, longing for your loved one to return, or even numbness.

While it can be uncomfortable to let yourself feel the emotions related to your grief, avoiding them all the time can be unhealthy. When you suppress your emotions, they may show up in outbursts or make you feel emotionally detached, per Everyday Health. Opening up about your deceased parent, what they meant to you, and how their death impacted you can be beneficial on your healing journey. 

Reaching out for social support can aid you in feeling less alone while grieving your loss. A 2020 review published in BMC Psychiatry found that increased social support after a traumatic death appeared to be associated with lower severity of PTSD and depression symptoms after a loved one's sudden or violent death. 

Keeping your parent's memory alive may also help you feel better. This can be by looking at pictures you took together, writing a letter to them, lighting a candle, or having a memorial, as illustrated by Psych Central. If you're struggling with your feelings of grief, it might also be helpful to reach out to a counselor or join a grief support group.