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Adult Orphans: Coping With the Loss of a Parent

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Summary & Participants

As adults, we all comprehend the fact that our parents will die eventually. But the reality of that event often has much more emotional impact than we can foresee. Join our panel of experts for a look at what happens when you become an "adult orphan."

Medically Reviewed On: July 21, 2012

Webcast Transcript

LISA CLARK: Welcome, and thank you for joining us for this webcast. I'm Lisa Clark.

As adults, we all comprehend the fact that someday our parents will die. But the reality of that event has much more emotional impact than we can often foresee. Even when our parents are advanced in age or have dealt with a long illness, it is hard to be prepared for the ramifications of such a loss, but they can be profound. For the next few minutes we'll take a look at the phenomenon of the adult orphan, and what the loss of your parent means, even when you are grown.

Joining us for this discussion is Benyamin Cirlin. Welcome. He is a clinical social worker and the executive director for the Center for Loss and Renewal in New York City. He's also the coordinator of bereavement services at Jacob Perlo Hospice of the Beth Israel Medical Center. Thanks for being here.

Also joining us is Patty Donovan-Duff. She is a registered nurse, and she is the director of the Bereavement Center of Westchester. Patty, you've also done a lot of hospice work. Benyamin, I want to go right to something that I know you're involved with. It is group work that deals specifically with these so-called adult orphans.

R. BENYAMIN CIRLIN, CSW: The fact is, parents are supposed to predecease children. Because it's a natural loss -- it follows the natural timeline -- many people sort of think that adults should just spend a few days grieving their parents and then get on with things, but there are lots and lots of adults who have a hard time moving on.

LISA CLARK: What are some of the typical feelings that this event awakes in person that they didn't realize was a part of their emotional structure?

R. BENYAMIN CIRLIN, CSW: Parents play a lot of roles for children, even when you're an adult. One of the roles that parents play is that they're sort of a buffer between ourselves and mortality. When a parent dies, often the adult child feels like they're on the front lines of mortality right now.

LISA CLARK: My mom has expressed that in almost exactly the same words. She lost her mother last year, and she said, "I feel like there's no one now between me and death." It's a very common feeling.

R. BENYAMIN CIRLIN, CSW: Another important phenomenon is that our parents are witnesses to our history. Many of us, when we grow up to be adults, don't have people who knew us when we were kids. When a parent dies, that witness to our childhood is gone, and it's now only something within us.

LISA CLARK: And the some people also, Patty, have to assume the role, say, of a caretaker, perhaps, of a surviving parent who is ill or perhaps even a younger sibling.

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