Conversations in Grief Blog: Grieving the Parent You Never Had

Rainbow Community Care Team
May 29, 2024 / 5 mins read

Grieving the Parent You Never Had

by Hilary Furnish


How do you grieve for someone you never had? Grief is often described as a response to losing something or someone, but what about the grief for that which was never really yours? Most of us come into the world with a mother and father who do the best they can to nurture, love, and raise us to pursue whatever life has in store for us. We stand on their wisdom, encouragment, and guidance from our first steps to the day we move out as adults. Even into the golden years of adulthood, reaching out to our mom or dad is often still a source of comfort. This loss of constant care and support becomes a significant source of grief when parents die. I often hear from those I support how they feel they have lost their “person,” and there is an overwhelming feeling of being unmoored and alone when a parent dies.

For others, their relationship with their parents is much more complicated. Addiction, mental health issues, divorce, and several other factors may mean growing up without a parent who provides the needed nurturing, safety, and support. There may be feelings of insecurity, shame, or abandonment. In situations like that, there may be a deep longing for the parent to become the type of parent they needed, for reconciliation or healing to happen. When the parent dies, a part of the grief may not only be for who they lost but for the hope of ever having the parent become who they needed.

Having a complicated relationship with a parent who has died may make bereavement more challenging in some ways. Others may offer sympathy and support in ways that are not helpful. They may assume you had a parent just like theirs, and your grief needs should be similar. Holidays, like Mother’s or Father’s Day, which are often difficult after the death of a parent may become unbearable. Social media and even going to the grocery store are filled with reminders of what was lost long before their death occurred. There may be feelings of guilt or anger if there were years of separation, or if others feel the surviving adult children were not as involved as they should have been. Even if those boundaries were there to protect the adult children from further harm.

How then do we approach grief with the loss of parents we never had? It is important to be honest about those feelings. Your mom or dad may still be living, and every year, a special occasion or holiday reminds you of the grief you continue to carry. Give yourself permission to grieve and care for yourself during these difficult times. For those who have lost a parent, it is important not only to acknowledge their death, but the loss of any hope for the deceased parent to become what was needed or who you wanted them to be. In some cases, seeking professional support to work through the mental and emotional pain caused by the parent who has died may be needed.

In both instances, rituals can be a supportive way to cope with the losses. Write a letter to your parent that is never sent to express what you can’t say. Draw or inscribe words on stones that reflect your feelings and cast them into a pond as an act of letting go of your loss and pain. Lastly, acknowledge the reality that your grief is your own, and however you feel about the parent you have lost is okay. No one gets to define it for you. By doing so we make space to grieve for all that is needed.