I’ve found that ultimately, even when my children want to be respected as an adult, they also crave the comfort of a parent.
As a parent, watching our kids suffer is one of the hardest things to endure. That truth never changes, even when our children become adults. One of the most difficult paths I’ve ever walked was with my adult children as they dealt with tragedy and grief. The pain of loss is familiar—we’ve all faced loss and tried to be supportive to others dealing with grief. Nonetheless, when a parent is trying to support an adult child, the process ushers in an entirely different dynamic. Helping your adult child cope with grief can be—at the very least—a challenging path to navigate.
When our kids were young, as parents, we frequently had the power to make life better. A cuddle, a kiss, and sometimes a cookie were the things we could use to fix many childhood griefs. But as our kids grew, so did the hard things they had to face.
Challenges When Adult Children Cope with Grief
The first obstacle we encounter when we’re helping an adult child cope with grief is the fact that the child is now an adult. It’s not uncommon for adult children to resent a parent. They can feel like we’re trying to reassert the parent child dynamic, as we did when they were growing up. Our adult children want to feel our respect, especially when they’re struggling.
Next, there is the truth that coping with loss doesn’t always bring out the best in any of us. A parent is often a safe person for a child—even an adult child—to lash out at. We must be prepared to give lots of grace and listen to what isn’t always said.
In some ways, the fact that we’re the ones on the receiving end of difficult emotions is confirmation that our child trusts us. Being the recipient of our child’s anger isn’t fun, but when we remember the underlying message that they know we love them no matter what, we can overlook the momentary hurt.
Finally, there’s the fact of our own emotional state. Often the grief our child is experiencing is the same grief we’re trying to cope with as well. We don’t want to ignore our own hurt, instead, we want to balance what we’re feeling with how we’re trying to help our kids. Often sharing how much we’re hurting too, is a helpful connection point.
I’m a fixer by nature. It’s something I fight—sometimes more successfully than others. I have a hard time stepping back and letting God be God in situations that are stressful. That’s been especially true as I’ve walked through some grieving times with our adult kids.
Remembering a few key truths about loss have kept me from making a difficult situation worse.
- Reminding myself that everyone grieves differently. I tend to be private in my most intense times of grief. I’m not comfortable sharing my tears with others. But there are others in our family who take great comfort in sharing their grief. Neither process is wrong, but it’s so important that we don’t impose our own needs on each other. I can cry in private, and I can still support my children as they grieve in a more public way.
- Reminding myself that there is nothing I can do. I hate feeling powerless. I want to take away the pain of those close to me, but the fact is—I can’t. The help I can give is not tied to fixing something. My role is to be present and share the grief journey.
- Grief is a messy process. There are some stages of grief that are common to most seasons of loss. Notice the word here is stages, not steps. These stages can come in any order and often appear more than once. I used to think of the process as steps and that completely derailed my own grief journey. Steps imply order. There is nothing orderly about grief.
- Clichés are rarely helpful, and they may actually be hurtful. This isn’t the time to share trite phrases or shallow platitudes. I’ve often found myself coping with my child’s hurting heart after someone else has shared one of the pat phrases commonly used when someone is grieving.
In spite of feeling powerless, there are things we can do to support them.
Powerful Ways You Can Give Support
In spite of feeling powerless, there are things we can do that make a difference and help them through this challenging time.
- Pray. We must remember that whether we feel like it or not, prayer is the most powerful thing we can do. We can pray for our adult child specifically throughout the grief journey. I ask Him to relieve our suffering, while allowing the good memories to remain. It’s important to seek His guidance to prevent bitterness and to stay connected to Him. I pray for God to reveal specific ways in which I can help lighten the burdens my children are carrying. I ask Him to surround us with a supportive community of people who can provide the necessary encouragement. I invite His intervention to shield our hearts and minds from guilt and regret.
- Be present. Walking into a loss situation can be uncomfortable. But helping is easier when we make sure we show up. Those who are grieving are more likely to accept help from someone who is right there, instead of reaching out to someone who has offered help.
- Keep asking. “Just give me call and let me know what you need.” Isn’t always enough. Follow that offer up frequently with specifics. If the person wants space, use the phone to call and text. Don’t give up, sometimes the fact that they don’t feel forgotten is as helpful as anything we do.
- Be silent. Although this seems like the opposite of number three above, it’s really not. We often forget that one part of supporting someone through loss means being quiet. The Bible verse that comes to my mind is Proverbs 10:19, “When words are many, transgression is not lacking, but whoever restrains his lips is prudent.” Many times the best thing we can do is be quiet.
- Be practical. When I’ve walked through times of grief with our kids I’ve had to fight the urge to utter life-changing advice. Sometimes the most helpful things are the practical ones—organizing meals and transportation, providing help with correspondence and managing calls and text messages. Leave the wisdom of the ages for another time.
- Listen. When your adult child is grieving, they may want to process out loud. Talking about memories is often helpful. Sharing your own memories can also be a good thing.
- Be forgiving. As I said, grief can bring out ugly emotions. It’s up to us to let our adult children have a safe place to vent.
- Be non-judgmental. Sometimes these seasons of grief cause guilt—because the loss isn’t judged big enough to justify grief. This judgement can come from a circle of friends, but more often it comes from the person experiencing the loss. Grief can come for lots of reasons and in lots of circumstances. One of the things I’ve learned is not to judge the situations that cause others grief. I’ve walked through seasons of loss because of a pet, a move, a job loss, a destroyed friendship, as well as the grief that comes when I’ve lost someone close. We can reassure the one grieving that we don’t always get to pick and choose the things that hurt us.
The single best thing I’ve found when helping an adult child cope with grief is to wrap my arms around my child, cry alongside, admit I don’t have the answer, but commit to walking the road of grief together.
©2023 Edie Melson. All rights reserved. Used with permission. Scripture quotations are from the ESV® Bible (The Holy Bible, English Standard Version®), copyright © 2001 by Crossway, a publishing ministry of Good News Publishers. Used by permission. All rights reserved. May not copy or download more than 500 consecutive verses of the ESV Bible or more than one half of any book of the ESV Bible.