Exploring the Impact of Parental Loss on Young Adults

Literature Review

This section explores different literary materials to establish reoccurring themes in the determination of the different ways in which young adults are affected by the deaths of their parents. There were identified two main themes from the literature search that we carried out bordering on how the unexpected loss of a parent affects young adults, which are, psychological suffering and social effects. Psychological sufferings are related to the mind and are those changes and alterations that pertain to, deal with and affect the mind. On the other hand, social effects are related to the way the unexpected death of a parent affects a young adult affects their wellbeing in the community and their interactions with others. Under these two main themes, more sub themes were identified. Subthemes of the psychological effects of parental loss were grief, emotional suffering, depression and psychological functioning. The sub-themes of social effects of unexpectedly losing a parent were poor peer relationships and adjustment disorders.

From the review, it is established that the loss of a parent presents profound psychological trauma to young adults as it presents threats to their emotional and social development. Ronsmans et al. (2010) carried out a study which established that children who had lost their parents presented a vulnerable population, which was at a higher risk of psychopathology and social impairment (Amato and Anthony, 2014). Richards (2012), points out that parental loss is one of the most difficult emotional human experiences in the world.



The death of parents is considered as one of the most difficult human experiences emotionally. It is filled with grief, traumatic and has permanent effects on the lives of the children both psychologically and biologically. Even those who have not experienced the grief that comes with the loss of a parent will most probably experience it at one time in their lives. Parental loss is inevitable and is a grief-filled and traumatic experience that alters the psychology and biology of children permanently (Brewer and Sparkes, 2011). There is nothing that remains the same after one loses their parents while still young. The loss of a parent triggers physical distress in the short term, and in the long term, puts the entire body at risk (Wilcox et al., 2010).

Research shows that different brain regions, like the posterior cingulate cortex, cerebellum, and frontal cortex, are mobilised during the process of grief. These are regions that are involved in the storage of memories and regulation of appetites and sleep. With time, grief develops into other types of complications like depression and anxiety and even leads to the development of adjustment disorders as shown in different parts of this paper.

Psychological impacts

The researcher notes that most of the psychological impacts of parental loss come about from the grieving which is their response to the loss. Grief has different psychological dimensions. It is worth pointing out that while there are relatively consistent physical symptoms that manifest themselves when someone loses their parent, predicting the psychological impacts is not easy (Amato and Anthony, 2015). According to the American Psychological Association, in the year that follows the loss of a parent, it is quite normal for young adults to go through a wide range of emotions that are contradictory that include but are not limited to sadness, numbness, rage, anger, emptiness, regret, guilt, anxiety, remorse and even regret (Wardecker et al. 2017). Throwing oneself to work is quite normal, as is withdrawing oneself from friends and normal routines (Berg, Rostilla and Hjern, 2019).

Coping is not as stressful when children had enough time to anticipate the death of their parents. On the other hand, lacking an opportunity to say goodbye brings about feelings of anger and depression (Rozalski, Holland and Neimeyer, 2017).

Death of a parent is an entirely transformative experience. In the short term, parental loss triggers physical distress. Bereavement that is complicated can possibly exist regardless of the parent who dies and the level of bereavement is largely dependent on the existing bonds with the parents (Rozalski, Holland and Neimeyer, 2017).

The majority of young adults are in their final years in high school and others in college. That is the period when most people begin growing into their own people. It is worth noting that this age group has enhanced cognitive capabilities, which put them in a good position to take apart ideas, put them together in new ways and further examine realities and possibilities and eventually build up new systems of thought (Fuchs et al., 2016).

The society expects that this is a vibrant age group that is not to be associated with loss, grief, and pain. These are individuals perceived as being perpetually happy and who are living their lives fully (Shane and Heckhausen, 2017). They are not capable of even sharing their pain. The hallmark of young adulthood is the achievement of separation from one's parents and the development of an individual into an autonomous being. It is worth pointing out that while the loss of a parent badly affects young adults, it also helps them with gaining maturity that is yet to be attained by other young adults whose parents are still alive (Bonanno, 2019).

Emotional impact

The researcher observes that those children who only have one parent are observed to have higher feelings of insecurity, and their way of behaviour is more immature. Emotional sufferings like depression and separation anxiety are bound to come about from the loss of a parent (Ronsmans et al. 2010). Those young adults who have all their parents alive are better placed to form relations that are friendlier in addition to having a lower likelihood of being depressed in comparison to other young adults whose parents are deceased (Fuchs et al. 2015). The risk of young adults who have lost their parents going through depression is dependent on their behaviours, personal attitudes, and the relationships they had with their dead parents. Serious disturbances in their psychological health characterise the majority of the people who had to lose their parents when they were young. This is characterised by disequilibrium psychologically and emotionally and also egocentrism (Brewer and Sparkes, 2011).

Immediately after the death of one of the parents, Feigelman et al. (2017) posits that it is important to the parents who survive communicates openly with the young adult. This argument is based on the fact that often, the death of one parent renders the surviving parent incapable emotionally of offering meaningful emotional support to the children, which often leads to them suffering high levels of anxiety. According to Simbi et al., (2020), those children who have lost their parents have a higher likelihood of experiencing higher demands for emotional support from the parents who survive in comparison to those who adjusted swiftly.

Psychological functioning

There are long-lasting effects of the death of a parent on young adults as these adolescents are observed to remain deficient in different parameters of psychological functioning for the rest of their lives (Patterson et al. 2019). From the different reviews, it was clear that an individual's psychological world refers to the existing connection between the individual's mind and the ways through which they function. Psychological functioning characterises processes, behaviours, and events whose origin is mental. On the other hand, social functioning refers to those behaviours that are influenced by an individual`s actions and attitudes and the presence of others in social settings (Koblenz, 2016). Characteristically, all human beings are social beings, and their interactions with other people influence their behaviours and intrinsic nature. It is not possible to separate psychological and social functioning, and that is because social functioning is an indicator of psychological functioning in social contexts (Lenferink et al, 2019).

The researcher observed that both social and psychological factors make up psychological functioning, and it is assumed that these factors play a critical role in ensuring that an individual adjusts effectively into society. Psychological functioning covers an individual`s adjustment to work and school, family, home, and personal physical development (Rozalski, Holland and Neimeyer, 2017). The first institute of a child`s learning is the parent, and they play some very immense roles in the psychological development of young adults. Some factors disturb psychological functioning, and these include the reception of reduced and lower than adequate social and psychological interactions. Healthy minds stimulate appropriate social interactions, which eventually leads to psychological functioning that is more effective (Shane and Heckhausen, 2017).

Wardecker et al. (2017), argues that the death of a parent, whether the father or the mother, negatively affects the health of young adults, and also their psychological functioning. It is worth noting that there are close relations between psychological and physiological functioning, and the satisfaction of basic needs alone does not satisfy the concept of psychological health. That is because there are other factors like security, affection, and love that have indirect effects on an individual's health. Berg, Rostilla and Hjern (2018), argue that affection and love are basic needs for most young adults.

From the review, it was evident to the researcher that children of single parents do not receive as much affection as the children who have both parents, and those children without one of their parents have a higher probability of being neglected and ending up assuming the attitudes of martyrdom when they are not in their homes. There is also the risk that they could end up carrying these behaviours even into their adult lives (Amato and Anthony, 2014). They turn themselves into introverts. On the other hand, those young adults whose parents are alive are accorded more attention, affection, and care and end up becoming more outgoing. The home provides a good basis for teaching social skills. Those young adults with social skills that are not adequate end up becoming less assertive, self-centred, and are also largely introverted (Simbi, Zhang and Wang, 2020).

The accordance of adequate attention, love, and affection by parents to their children puts the children in a better position to acquire personalities that are adjustable and self-confidence. They end up becoming friendlier, are humorous, and are also more sensitive to the plight of others (Lundberg, 2019). They will be found taking part in recreational activities freely. Young adults who have lost their parents, on the other hand, have a reduced likelihood of partaking in recreational activities, and that is because a majority of them are burdened with thoughts and responsibilities that are rather heavy (Wilcox et al. 2010). When their mothers are dead, they will help their fathers with bringing up their younger siblings, and when their fathers are dead, they have to carry their father’s responsibilities even beyond their homes (Brewer AND Sparkes, 2011). They will take up part-time jobs as they continue with their studies in a bid to help their mothers with the footing of bills, and that makes it quite hard for them to pursue their hobbies (Rozalski, Holland and Neimeyer, 2017). Unfulfilled wishes and hopelessness brew depression among young adults and they end up becoming largely uninterested in their daily routines as they draw minimum pleasure from them.


The researcher observed that the grief that remains unresolved is capable of spiralling into depression and anxiety (Lenferink et al. 2019). That becomes especially true when suicide is the cause of the parent's death (Rozalski, Holland and Neimeyer, 2017). Those young parents whose parents die as a result of committing suicide end up struggling with different emotions like anger, guilt, vulnerability, and feelings of abandonment (Fuchs et al. 2016). The death of a parent through committing suicide increases the probability of the child committing suicide.

Amato and Anthony (2014), argue that the appropriate ways of coping with parental loss are active areas of scientific inquiry. Different distorted thoughts infect human minds whenever they face adversities. "I should be treated better" and "I should be perfect" are the most common. These are thoughts that are capable of coming up when a loved one passes on.

When young adults begin reflecting on how well they should have treated their parents who have passed on, the thoughts of "I should be perfect" come up (Koblenz, 2016). The feelings of the need to have done more for their deceased parents cloud them, and when left undisputed, such thoughts are capable of leading to lowered self-esteem, self-condemnation, self-judgment, and shame. There are even instances when patients begin blaming their parents who are dead for having treated them wrongly and passing on without making amends. In equal measure, this is also not healthy as it leads to deep feelings of resentment, rage, and anger (Wilcox et al., 2010). While one may have reasons that are genuine for feeling abused and mistreated, the death of the possibilities of reconciliation and not the death of the parent that brings up bad feelings. The possibilities of reconciliation die with the passing of the parent.

The fresh feelings of vulnerability are capable of influencing the willingness with which young adults get into relationships with. According to Ronsmans et al., (2010), those young adults who lose their parents either entirely relationships completely or quickly jump into committed relationships. The loss of a parent brings about a change in the way young adults view the world, which eventually makes them feel vulnerable and also increases their awareness of life`s transitory nature (Patterson et al. 2019). That makes them model relationships from their experiences of loss.

In extreme cases, the only way to get young adults back to the track is through therapy. Other factors that can help young adults to get through these painful stages include having friends and people close to them who are understanding (Patterson et al. 2019).

There is not enough psychological data capable of capturing the sharp pain, and powerful grief that affects young adults after the loss of their parents, and that is because different people are affected by death differently (Feigelman et al. 2017). However, several psychological and brain-imaging studies have been able to demonstrate the magnitude of parental loss.

Social relationships

Simbi, Zhang and Wang (2020), point out that there is an association between the death of a parent and difficulties in establishing proper intimate and interpersonal relationships, poor performance in school, and extreme cases, dropping out from school, and lower rates of employment. There is a major predictive role played by the loss of a parent for negative young adult health outcomes. These negative health outcomes include; cortisol dysregulation, chronic illnesses, and even premature deaths (Feigelman et al. 2017).

Peer relationships

In the normal order of life, it is expected that parents live long enough to see their children going through different milestones in life. The loss of a parent affects young adults in that they lose their sense of self. Parents provide their children with safe bases of exploring outer and inner experiences. Children continuously count on their parent's figures to repair different aspects of the self, sustain themselves, and even for the regulation of effect (Amato and Anthony, 2014). Close relations between young adults and their parents are quite important, and that is because their moral awareness develops as their cognitive abilities also develop.

In the normal order of life, it is expected that parents live long enough to see their children going through different milestones in life. The loss of a parent affects young adults in that they lose their sense of self. Parents provide their children with safe bases of exploring outer and inner experiences. Children continuously count on their parent's figures to repair different aspects of the self, sustain themselves, and even for the regulation of effect (Amato and Anthony, 2014). Close relations between young adults and their parents are quite important, and that is because their moral awareness develops as their cognitive abilities also develop.

Different studies carried out on young adults who have lost their parents reveal that they are more susceptible to falling into depression, substance abuse, anxiety. They resort to maladaptive coping strategies that include increasingly blaming themselves and even emotional eating (Shane and Heckhausen, 2017). On the other hand, young adults who spend their time with their parents end up doing better socially, and in general, the quality of life they live is better, and they do not have as many substances uses and mental health issues (Koblenz, 2016). The death of a parent affects other domains that are associated with different evolutionary tasks of the early years of adulthood. It is worth noting that this is a period considered as a period of transition characterised by integration and consolidation of identity transformations.

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Adjustment disorders

When those bereaved become so overcome to the extent of being damaged that they cannot go on with their daily activities normally, grief becomes pathological. According to preliminary studies, this happens in up to 1% of healthy populations and up to 10% of populations previously diagnosed with different stress disorders (Berg, Rostila and Hjem, 2016). Diagnosis of adjustment disorders is usually made within three months of death when grief reactions persist, exceeding the factors that are normal for religion and culture. In such situations, young adults face challenges with meeting their occupational, social, and other different life functions that are important.

Diagnosis of adjustment disorders are usually done after three months of the occurrence of death in the event grief reactions persist beyond the norm religiously and even culturally. In such situations, those people who are grieving are faced with severe challenges in meeting their occupational, social and other different life functions.

Even those young adults who can put on brave faces and maintain their daily routines could end up suffering from clinical conditions when the death preoccupies them, and they do not come into terms with the death of their parents. Diagnosis of this condition, which is known as the persistent complex bereavement disorder, is trickier, which makes it hard to pin it down (Brewer and Sparks, 2011). Even those young adults who are able to put on brave faces could end up suffering clinical conditions in the event they continue being preoccupied with their loss, get into denial of the death of their parents, or avoid reminders about their parents actively.


Amato, P. R., and Anthony, C. J. (2014). Estimating the effects of parental divorce and death with fixed effects models. Journal of Marriage and Family, 76(2), 370-386.

Berg, L., Rostila, M. and Hjern, A., 2016. Parental death during childhood and depression in young adults–a national cohort study. Journal of child psychology and psychiatry, 57(9), pp.1092-1098.

Bonanno, G.A., 2019. The other side of sadness: What the new science of bereavement tells us about life after loss. Hachette UK.

Brewer, J.D. and Sparkes, A.C., 2011. Young people living with parental bereavement: Insights from an ethnographic study of a UK childhood bereavement service. Social Science & Medicine, 72(2), pp.283-290.

Feigelman, W., Rosen, Z., Joiner, T., Silva, C. and Mueller, A.S., 2017. 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, 41(3), pp.133-143.

Fuchs, F., Cosquer, B., Penazzi, L., Mathis, C., Kelche, C., Majchrzak, M., and Barbelivien, A. (2016). Exposure to an enriched environment up to middle age allows preservation of spatial memory capabilities in old age. Behavioural brain research, 299, 1-5.

Koblenz, J., 2016. Growing from grief: Qualitative experiences of parental loss. OMEGA-Journal of Death and Dying, 73(3), pp.203-230.

Lenferink, L. I., de Keijser, J., van Denderen, M. Y., and Boelen, P. A. (2019). Latent classes of posttraumatic stress symptoms in two samples of bereaved people. International Journal of Stress Management, 26(4), 401.

Patterson, P., McDonald, F.E., Costa, D.S., Tindle, R., Allison, K.R. and Morris, S.E., 2019. Initial validation of a needs instrument for young people bereaved by familial cancer. Supportive Care in Cancer, pp.1-12.

Ronsmans, C., Chowdhury, M. E., Dasgupta, S. K., Ahmed, A., and Koblinsky, M. (2010). Effect of parent's death on child survival in rural Bangladesh: a cohort study. The Lancet, 375(9730), 2024-2031.

Rozalski, V., Holland, J. M., and Neimeyer, R. A. (2017). Circumstances of death and complicated grief: Indirect associations through meaning made of loss. Journal of Loss and Trauma, 22(1), 11-23.

Shane, J., and Heckhausen, J. (2017). It's only a dream if you wake up: Young adults' achievement expectations, opportunities, and meritocratic beliefs. International Journal of Psychology, 52(1), 40-48.

Simbi, C.M.C., Zhang, Y. and Wang, Z., 2020. Early parental loss in childhood and depression in adults: a systematic review and meta-analysis of case-controlled studies. Journal of affective disorders, 260, pp.272-280.

Wardecker, B.M., Kaplow, J.B., Layne, C.M. and Edelstein, R.S., 2017. Caregivers’ positive emotional expression and children’s psychological functioning after parental loss. Journal of child and family studies, 26(12), pp.3490-3501.

Wardecker, B.M., Kaplow, J.B., Layne, C.M. and Edelstein, R.S., 2017. Caregivers’ positive emotional expression and children’s psychological functioning after parental loss. Journal of child and family studies, 26(12), pp.3490-3501.

Wilcox, H. C., Kuramoto, S. J., Lichtenstein, P., Långström, N., Brent, D. A., and Runeson, B. (2010). Psychiatric morbidity, violent crime, and suicide among children and adolescents exposed to parental death. Journal of the American Academy of Child & Adolescent Psychiatry, 49(5), 514-523.

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