Losing a parent may cause anxiety and lead to other mental health effects. But each individual may respond to death differently.
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My father died of cancer 3 days after his 51st birthday. I was 14 at the time.
I experienced anxiety long before his death, so losing him wasn’t the ultimate cause of my mental health issues. Still, his death added a different layer to my anxieties.
As a young child, I worried about our house burning down, war breaking out, or someone breaking into our home.
After he died, different forms of anxiety were added to the mix — first primarily related to my own health and nowadays also related to the health and safety of my loved ones.
For most people, losing a parent — whether at a young age or as an adult — is a life changing event that can affect mental well-being in the short and long term.
Grieving is a personal process, and just as feelings after the loss of a loved one may differ from person to person, so can mental health effects.
Beth Tyson, MA, a psychotherapist and childhood grief and trauma consultant in Philadelphia, says the way that mental health is impacted by loss may depend on many factors, including:
- the age of the parent when they died
- the cause of death (prolonged illness, unexpected, violent)
- the age of the child when the parent died
- the relationship with the parent
- preexisting mental health conditions
- previous exposure to trauma, including other losses
- lack of family or social support
- other life stressors on top of grief, such as the loss of a job or significant relationship
- depressive disorders
- anxiety disorders
- substance use disorders
- developmental disorders
- behavioral and emotional disorders
- psychotic disorders
- bipolar disorder
- personality disorders
Andrea Dorn, MSW, LISW-CP, a psychotherapist in Columbia, South Carolina, and author of “When Someone Dies: A Children’s Mindful How-To Guide on Grief and Loss,” says some people may develop post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) as a result of losing a parent — especially if the loss of the parent is traumatic.
In hindsight, I believe that losing my father to cancer at a young age only exacerbated my anxious tendencies.
According to Dorn, some of the most common types of anxiety she sees after the loss of a parent include:
- health anxiety and somatic symptoms disorder
- separation anxiety
- panic attacks or panic disorder
- generalized anxiety
Dorn says that while many people show signs of these anxieties, the symptoms may not always be severe enough to result in a clinical diagnosis.
Mitch Keil, PsyD, a clinical psychologist in Newport Beach, California, says separation anxiety is more commonly seen in children. At the same time, adults may be more likely to have generalized and health anxiety following the death of a parent.
Still, Tyson points out that separation anxiety can also be seen in adults.
“Anxiety can pop up at times of separation from your child due to the loss of your parent,” she says, adding that anxiety related to your role as a parent can also be common in people who lost a parent.
And according to Tyson, the types of anxiety you experience may shift over time.
Dorn explains that around the ages of 4 to 5 years, 8 years, and 12 years — when children experience developmental milestones — it’s possible to see a shift in how they grasp concepts of finality, mortality, and death, and how they process grief.
While anxiety looks different for everyone, anxiety and grief may show up in different age groups in these common ways.
Children under 12
Dorn says that for younger children, anxiety after the loss of a parent often stems from:
- separation from a primary caregiver
- a change in routine
- worries about other people going away
- worries about seeing others grieve
“Oftentimes, these anxieties come not only from the loss but also from a lack of understanding about what to expect and what is happening,” Dorn says.
Keil adds that losing a parent in early life may affect a person’s mental health later. For example, research from 2022 indicates that losing a parent at a young age may increase your chances of developing depression in adulthood.
Adolescence and early adulthood
During adolescence and early adulthood, children become more self-aware.
Dorn says that losing a parent during this developmental stage may cause anxiety to shift toward existential anxiety. Teens and young adults may worry about changes to routines or activities they once shared with the deceased parent.
According to Keil, the death of a parent can also temporarily amplify preexisting mental health conditions in adults.
“If you have a little anxiety before the loss, now there is a lot,” he says. “If you [have had] mild depression, it tends to be more moderate or severe while navigating acute bereavement.”
According to Dorn, people who lose a parent after they’re 60 years old themselves may be less likely to develop grief-related anxiety.
Though the loss is still very difficult, older adults tend to be more accepting and find reassurance that their parent lived a long, fulfilled life.
Similarly, Keil says that adults who have cared for an ill parent sometimes feel a certain sense of relief and peace.
Both Dorn and Tyson agree that grief and grief-related anxiety over the loss of a loved one never truly go away and may flare up around significant events.
“It ebbs and flows like waves in an ocean,” Tyson says. “Sudden large waves of grief can show up around significant dates like birthdays or holidays. The anxiety can be triggered by a memory, a smell, a sound, a taste, or other sensory experiences.”
Still, Dorn says that those waves of grief and grief-related anxiety tend to decrease in number and intensity over time in most cases.
For me, the day that triggered immense grief and anxiety for a long time was New Year’s Eve.
I had stubbornly held on to the belief that my father would get better. And even though it was clear that he didn’t have much longer to live, the New Year’s Eve before he died, I ended up yelling at my parents because I felt they had given up hope. He died less than a month later.
These days, I’ve learned to enjoy New Year’s Eve with my own kid and have allowed myself to be hopeful and optimistic again.
Dealing with grief and grief-related anxiety can be difficult, but there are ways to help you cope.
Make space for grief
Tyson recommends dedicating a certain amount of time each week to grieving, as this may allow you to process your grief and heal.
Some activities you can try include:
- looking at old pictures
- talking about your loved one
- thinking about your memories together
- thinking about what you miss about them
- writing to your loved one as though they were there
Tyson adds that grieving can also include creating a ritual to honor your parent, such as:
- lighting a candle
- saying a prayer if you’re spiritual
- planning a memorial walk or run
Remember that everyone grieves differently, and there isn’t a “right” or “wrong” way to do it.
“Letting go of ‘doing it right’ will relieve your anxiety,” Tyson says. “It’s OK to not cry. It’s OK to smile and laugh. It’s OK to cry every day. There are no rules of grieving.”
Try breathing exercises and healing touch
Breathing exercises and practicing healing touch may help you work through difficult emotions, anxiety, and intense waves of grief.
Healing touch combines breathing with physical touch. Dorn recommends starting with one of two positions:
- place one hand on your stomach and the other on your chest
- cross your arms in front of you and apply firm pressure to your shoulders or upper arms like a firm hug
Then, as you breathe, try to notice any feelings of comfort this gentle touch may bring you.
Seek out support and connection
Grieving can feel lonely and isolating. And while you may sometimes prefer to work through your feelings and grief alone, connecting with others can help with the healing process. Dorn suggests:
- connecting with people who have your best interests in mind
- joining a support group
- connecting with your spiritual community if you have one
- reaching out to a therapist
Helping children cope
The loss of a parent can be especially difficult for younger children.
Dorn highlights the importance of:
- ensuring children have at least one safe, consistent relationship to process big emotions
- allowing space for play
- reassuring them of safety
- teaching them coping skills
For example, Dorn’s “The Grief and Loss Meditation Song” teaches children to
- Take a deep breath.
- Give yourself a hug.
- Talk with someone you love.
If you find that your child is having a difficult time coping with the death of a parent, it can also be helpful to reach out to a mental health professional who can help through therapy and other resources.
For most people, grieving is a temporary process. While grief may be triggered during significant events and holidays, feelings of grief usually taper off on their own. Similarly, grief-related anxiety may be temporary and manageable without professional help.
Still, if symptoms of grief and anxiety last for months or even years and affect your quality of life, it may be helpful to seek help from a mental health professional. This is known as “complicated grief” or “prolonged grief disorder.”
Tyson recommends also seeking mental health treatment in these situations:
- sudden, violent, or early parental death
- thoughts of harming yourself or others
- severe changes in sleep or eating patterns
- panic attacks
- obsessive thoughts
- irritability and anger
If you’re considering self-harm or suicide, you’re not alone
You can access free support right away with these resources:
- The National Suicide Prevention Lifeline. Call the Lifeline at 800-273-8255 for English or 888-628-9454 for Spanish, 24 hours a day, 7 days a week.
- The Crisis Text Line. Text HOME to the Crisis Text Line at 741741.
- The Trevor Project. LGBTQIA+ and under 25 years old? Call 866-488-7386, text “START” to 678678, or chat online 24/7.
- Veterans Crisis Line. Call 800-273-8255, text 838255, or chat online 24/7.
- Deaf Crisis Line. Call 321-800-3323, text “HAND” to 839863, or visit their website.
- Befrienders Worldwide. This international crisis helpline network can help you find a local helpline.
The loss of a parent can affect mental health in many ways — both in the short and long term — but grieving may also lead to personal growth.
“Though the loss of a parent can bring on anxiety in many forms, it’s a transition that can also eventually bring immense growth and create a gratitude for life and the connections and experiences we have during our time here,” Dorn says.
I can’t deny that losing my father has tremendously affected my mental health and that I often wish he was here to see what I’ve become and meet my husband and his grandchild.
Still, I also know that my life would have been completely different had he lived. I would likely have missed out on many experiences that shaped me and helped me grow. I would likely not have met my husband and would not be doing the work I love.
And while living with anxiety hasn’t been easy, I’ve realized that it isn’t just a weakness. It is also a strength.
Susanne Arthur is committed to bringing empathetic, empowering, and evidence-based mental health content to readers worldwide. Having lived with generalized anxiety disorder since childhood, she’s particularly interested in anxiety disorders, depression, suicide prevention, and mental health in children and young adults.