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Death Of Both Parents


I have experienced the death of both parents in less than 2 years. My mother got diagnosed with ovarian cancer and suffered terribly for the last 3 months of life. It was a terrible experience. My father, who is a stroke victim and had numerous medical issues also, wore himself down totally. He would not leave her side except when we insisted. He would sit day after day and week after week, crying at her bedside. Then a few months ago, he died suddenly. I have been diagnosed with PTSD because of some issues previously and also caring for my mother. She had surgery to remove the cancer, and was left with a gaping hole in her stomach. Without being too graphic, I had to see things that haunt me to this day, and it has been almost two years now. I think of suicide every day and have come close a couple of times.

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There is grief and then there is grief. Your case would best be placed in the latter category, it would seem, and not without reason. You have lost both parents in a very short span of time. You have lived through both your mother’s agony, and your father’s, and had no way to help them bear their terrible burdens. And, it would seem, you came to the party having already experienced some other issues that left you susceptible to a diagnosis of PTSD. This trauma is very recent, having ended only several months ago. I think you are understandably devastated.

Not everyone who is in the middle of grief benefits from seeing a therapist, much less a psychiatrist, but in your complicated case, with PTSD present, a very personally traumatic and painful double loss, and most importantly, persistently suicidal thoughts and attempts, my sense is that you would benefit from professional care, both psychotherapeutic and psychiatric. Medications can help reduce some of the impact of your symptoms and help lift and support your mood. Forming a relationship with a caring therapist can help you have ready access to an external point of view who can be a sounding board for you, if that will help; who can help you reality test; who can encourage and support you; who can offer you or point you towards interventions (such as EMDR for intrusive memories, self-soothing for jangled nerves, etc.) that might help reduce or better manage your symptoms. A professional therapist can also serve an important monitoring function which would seem almost necessary given your active suicidality, and can (if you alert them), help keep you safe from yourself by arranging for hospitalization when that might be necessary. If you aren’t already under professional care, I urge you to make appointments shortly. You should do this even if money is tight for you, as your suicidal condition is potentially lethal.

You are understandably devastated. Things will never be the same again, and you have lost very important supports in your life. To the extent that you have true PTSD which goes untreated (or which doesn’t respond well to treatment), you can also expect to vividly relive painful memories of some of the very difficult things you’ve experienced periodically throughout your life. In that sense, to the extent that PTSD hangs around, you can expect to experience a rather protracted grief process. While all of this is true, what is also true is that each day is a potential new opportunity to heal, to make new supportive connections with others, to support others, and to find meaning in life despite the wounds you’ve suffered. You may feel like you want to die; you may be very depressed right now; but life can get better, far better, than it is for you right now. If you can find a way to endure what you need to endure; if you can detach yourself to some degree from what is painful; you will find opportunities for new growth. Life can return to a new balance of normal if you allow it, want it, and work for it.

PTSD is a type of anxiety disorder, believe it or not. Like most anxiety disorders, it involves a large amount of wanting to avoid something frightening. The act of avoiding what is frightening helps make the anxiety of PTSD worse, but the catch-22 of PTSD is that the stuff that you want to avoid seems so horrific that you can’t tolerate it and so must try to avoid it anyway. One of the ways that PTSD is treated is to help sufferers to better tolerate what they are afraid of, so that they don’t have to avoid it, and therefore so that they can function better. It’s hard to function when you are avoiding horrific memories. The memories don’t go away even when treatment is successful, but their impact can lessen in intensity.

There are a variety of ways that PTSD exposure therapies are conducted. One approach uses the container of trust that forms within a therapeutic relationship to support patients’ talking about their traumas. Talking about things helps some people (not all!) to feel more normal about what they’ve experienced, and (perhaps more importantly) helps them to realize that they don’t necessarily come apart when they do talk about what they’re tortured by. This learning help reduce the impact of the intrusive memories. It is important that such exposure therapy be done carefully and slowly.

Another approach, called Acceptance and Commitment Therapy or ACT helps people develop a detached perspective on the contents of their own minds that helps reduce the power of those contents. As people strengthen their ability to disembedd themselves from the thoughts and feelings in their minds, various traumas lose some of their horrificness.

Anyway, you might look into one or another of these sorts of therapy approaches for your PTSD, suicidality and grief. If you can lessen the need to run from these memories you’re stuck with, you will have less need to escape life and will improve your ability to function, which in turn will make it easier for you to develop a new life for yourself. This is very likely possible for you to accomplish, given the appropriate support which I hope you will seek out.

More "Ask Dr. Dombeck" View Columnists

  • Mike

    I have lost both parents with in 10 months of each other. My dad passed away June 2, 2008 from many illnesses and heart problems. My mom passed away 3 weeks (April 15, 2009) ago from pnemonia (unexpectedly). Right now I still don't believe all this is real. I wake up everyday and it's still has not sunk in. I keep thinking I can just pick up the phone and call. I feel lost and don't what to do next. My sister and I are trying to go through all the financial and legal steps as best as we can. I guess I'm in shock. I don't want it to be real. Any suggestions would help.

  • stacey b.


    My mom passed away August 3rd, 2009 in her sleep. She wasn't sick or anything. Her burial was Auaugst 11. That evening my father passed away. We had his burial on August 13.

    As I write this I have tears flowing down my cheeks. They were more than my parents. they were my best friends and I miss them terribly.

    I gave up my scholarship for university to stay home with them since they in the senior years. I don't regret it one bit. Never have. But I am very lonely and lost without them in my life.



  • JAH

    My dad passed away on July 14th of this year from cancer. My mom passed away on October 11th of this year and also from cancer. They were both 68 years old and I am 35 years old. Sometimes the grief is too much to bear. I certainly understand your pain.

  • tony

    these stories are soo sad, i really feel for you all.

    ill pray for all of you who are experiencing this agony.

    life is tough. seems i loosing everyone close to me also.

    i hope the best for all of you. i surely dont know the

    answer. hang on to that thread and dont let go.

  • Debbie S

    I, too, have lost both of my parents. In addition to the overwhelming loneliness I feel because they are gone, my siblings have not been supportive, instead have told me to 'get over it'. My mom died the day before my birthday last year (april 29th) and my Dad just 5 weeks ago, and I'm supposed to be okay with this and 'get over it'.

    To anyone reading who has not lost both parents and does not know the grief of it, please remember to be gentle with those going thru the process, as each person deals with grief in their own way, and cold, callous "get over it, move on" comments only made me consider suicide seriously for the first time in my life...

    To everyone here going thru the grief of loss, I add prayers for you as well, since I never knew anything could be this painful.

    God Bless,

    Debbie in Youngstown, Ohio

  • christine.

    My mother passed away in july 2007 with bowel cancer and my father passed away in june 2009 with a heart attack. Their loss is the biggest issue i still face in my life till date. It feels so lonley without them. When my mother died it was like a dream at first everything seemed normal untill about four weeks after when reality kicked in. No calls on my phone every second as she usually did, no one to talk to about ups and downs of life, it just seemed really quiet. I lost alot of weight as i started becoming paranoid about her illness and her death. The truth is it will be a tough task to get by without your parent, the thoughts, the advise, the yelling, the flashing on your mobile phone, the list is endless, but with the Grace and help of God he heals with time. The memories will all be their but when you remember things you laugh about them.

    In the case of my father, we became really close when my mum died as they seperated when we were young. my dad became my friend he was also my spritual father as was an elder in the church we would read the bible together, talk about life, he even spoke about mistakes he made with my mother and how much it affected him, we made a very close bond. About two months before my dad died i had a dream i told him the dream and he assured me his health was fine. In May he was rushed to hospital of a heart attack, and he only lasted a week, the sad thing is he was in nigeria and i was only able to speak to him on the phone. He prayed for me before he died,. he died 4 days after my birthday.

    I still cry almost everyday because the death of my parent made me know who loves me and who does not really give a toss. But I thank God for his grace and allowing my parents to train me in the right way most especially in the christian faith.

    I pray that all of you that are going through the loss of a loved one that God gives you strength and courage to bear the pain.

    Remain blessed

  • HCJ

    I lost each of my parents within three months when I was 27 due to leukemia and lung cancer. I'm now 44. I feel like my thoughts of losing them hover over me all day, all the time. Even though it has been nearly 20 years, I still feel the pain and am full of regrets and confusion. I have a family of my own and feel like I'm not as present as I'd like to be. Also, I feel like I've become overly worried about the day to day troubles such as house repairs, etc. and stress out too much. I'm going through periods of insomnia that are anxiety related. It's crazy how their death haunts my life. I wish I could say it gets easier, but it doesn't. Perhaps the only positive that comes along with age is the "wisdom" you attain, the live for the day attitude. I think this keeps me going and keeps me strong. I stumbled on this forum at midnight as I can't sleep. I was wondering whether the experience gave me ptsd. Maybe it has. More to contemplate. Strangely, it's comforting to read the other posts and know I'm/we're not alone. Hang in there folks.

    Take care.

  • marilyn

    I too lost both in 6 dad in 2004 of suicide was ill. my mom over a period of 10 years became unable to talk,walk could write us messages.she passed sept.25 2009when the $ ran out they said it was her time.also my kids dad 1 year after my dad was like my best friend! I spent lots of time being with and caring for them,but feel I didnt do enough ex was alcoholic and ended up with cancer of the liver.I divorced in 2003.It is so hard not having them around.Never thought about what it would be like.I still have my moments,holidays,b-days.I am sorry we all have to go through this!!!!

  • Sara

    I am a 62 year old female. My parents married late in life. My mother worked for my father for 15 years before they married. My dad was 55 and my mother was 43 when I was born. I was an only child. I had a good childhood, good health, and did well in school. Both parents were supportive, but were more like grandparents. Then at age 12 my mother was diagnosed with terminal cancer. The stress killed my father who had heart disease and he died before my 14th birthday. My mother was very brave and tried to stay alive for as long as she could, withstanding horrible cancer treatment. She died when I was 15. I lived with my mother's sister and her husband so I could stay with my friends in high school, and maintain some continuity. I continued to do well in school, went to an excellent college where I also did well. At times, however the loneliness was awful. Father's Day was painful for me, to see all the dads visiting and I had none. In 4 years, I got called maybe 3 times by family members. I made the mistake of doing too well, I guess. No one thought I needed any help.

    I forged ahead the following years with work and graduate school, not really thinking about marriage and children. I knew something was not right. It didn't seem to be meant for me. I felt I lived in an alternate universe from everyone else. I spent 7 years in one city where I worked and obtained an MBA. I moved to another city shortly after that. I met my husband there and we married when I was 31. We've been married for 31 years. We had no children, as I never had the urge. He had one daughter from a previous marriage. We started a business together in 1990 and it has been our sole focus for 20 years. I became very ill after years of decline from undiagnosed thyroid disease and have spent nearly 6 years recovering from it, due to so many doctors not diagnosing it or knowing how to properly treat it. Depression is a big part of the disease, and also anxiety/panic attacks. My health deterioration finally triggered deep grief which surfaced about my parents and lack of family. Even cousins I knew slightly were a generation older than me. I never felt so alone. Finally in 2008 I worked with a therapist (had been to several off and on over the years for different forms of depression, but not one of them dug into my unexpressed/unresolved grief) who thought I had been suffering from PTSD for most of my life. Somehow I just kept pressing onward and avoiding the pain. The illness really brought it out, but due to the severe fatigue and brain fog symptoms, I was not able to do therapy. I lost what little social network I had, as I was home all the time with fatigue and panic attacks. I was finally starting to feel much better this past summer under a new doctor's care, and was attempting to enter therapy about my issues of grief and lack of family and friends, when my husband admitted to an affair with a former high school girlfriend, and he moved out a short time ago. He swears he wants no divorce, and refuses to live with the woman. I doubt that status will last long, but I could be wrong. He and I are both in counseling, but he refuses couples counseling and claims he doesn't want to revisit our issues any more. We must see each other and talk several times weekly for business reasons and also for staff meetings once a week. He has asked me to some functions and I go, and he came over for Thanksgiving, but the pain is unbearable after we say good bye. I'm hoping with his time away from his pain and issues with me, and more time in therapy, he might heal and reconsider our relationship. I am determined to keep my act together and stay involved in our business for as long as possible, as the business is our retirement nest egg and we plan to sell it in 10 years. I have been crying out for my mother and father for years now, even more at age 62, with my husband gone, wanting to "go home" for some kind of support and consolation. Except that home disappeared 50 years ago. It is staggeringly painful to me that no one is there to talk to, and no one calls me, since all my aunts and uncles and nearly all cousins were dead several years ago. Friends from high school are merely acquaintances now, with their own friends and family, and we email just a few time a year at most. With my husband leaving me, the grief over the loss of my parents is becoming unbearable again. I tap into the old feelings. There is the loss and grieving over my marriage (longer in duration than the time I had with my parents), the loss of the man I've loved for 32 years and built a business with, and the loss of my best friend whom I talked and laughed and dreamed with from morning to night. I am in therapy twice weekly over my marriage break up, but the loneliness and grief is often unbearable when I am home alone. I have reached out to a couple of acquaintances, but have no sense that I could keep reaching out. One friend is far away and we have talked on the phone often. She might be able to visit me after the holidays. I really don't know my neighbors and don't share the same values and views of life as they do, so it's all superficial relationships. I don't belong to a church, and all my volunteer work took place years ago before the business took all our time, and then my illness. So I'm trying to fill my time with work, I go to therapy, and I watch movies, or cook.

    I should have started counseling long ago, but no family member came forward to guide me about it when I was young, I seemed to be handling everything "just fine," and no counselor I saw over the years ever approached me about exploring the grief issues. I look back and find it very hard to believe. At age 62, I don't know how I'm going to face the remaining years of my life. And I don't know if I can go on much longer seeing and meeting with my husband while in such limbo and in such pain. I am still in shock and feel disconnected, more than ever. I just want to "go home" and find some warmth and welcome and someone to talk to. I'm so weary of trying to be strong and forging ahead, as I have my whole life.

    Thanks for this topic and the comments. It's hard to find the topic of losing both parents being discussed. It helps to know that others are out there with the same feelings.

  • Joanna

    I too lost both of my parents, just less than a year ago. My parents were both very healthy 63 yr olds, when they were killed in a road accident. My family still have the court trial to go through (in April) against the man whom the police have charged with 'causing death by dangerous driving.' (he's pleading not guilty!!!). I come from a very close family and I was very close to my parents. I refused to move away from my home-town when I got married and had children, because I didn't want to be far away from my parents. I can't even begin to describe how much i miss them. I miss the daily phone-calls, the frequent meals and days outs. Most of all I miss the fun and laughter we used to have together. Losing them has devastated the lifes of my family. Life is and never will be the same again. On a positive note, they were such positive and happy people that I refuse to get too depressed about their deaths, as they would have hated that. Their legacy lives on through myself, brothers and sister and through their many grandchildren. I find taking each day as it comes the best approach to bereavement. Cry when you need too, don't expect too much of yourself and slowly bit by bit things start to get a little brighter.

  • only child

    My mom passed away of a double stroke/heart attack at age of 77, March 28, 2009. She had double stroke on St. Patricks Day. My mom and dad were married for 59. would be close to 62 now. I am going on 58. Dad died 4 weeks ago of heart issues/diabetes and colon cancer. the heart and the loneliness of loosing was the hardest on him, as they wre both loves. I am an only by medical reasons. I thought loosing my mom was devasting, I havel always had a pal in my dad, being a girl, even, and he was/is my hero....I miss his 15 calls at least a day. I miss him asking me questions over and over. We are were all very close.......were best friends. I have lost my best friends. My mom never regained conciousness after strokes, so if she heard, the millions I loves you, I am grateful. Dad was fine before having a colon surgery....he ws never able to speak but a word after. He told me before going to surgery, Honey, God is going to take real good care of you, I promise....I asked him what he meant, as he was going to be ok......crying.....he turned his head going into surgery doors, that was the last conversation we had.

    He lasted for 2 weeks in icu......I/with family had to make the decison, with what my dad and I discussed many times, not to do anything extra, but to make him pain free and calm. I talked to him that afternoon before his passing on March 16, ten minutes before the day of Mom's stroke.........I do feel God had a hand in knowing the impact of her death, and knew dad wanted no more. I talked to my dad for about, crying, talking about him growing up, making a good man of himself, husband and father....a loving soulmate and loving daughter. He was the best....I went through my growing years with him with glowing compliments........he was/still is the best as far as I am concerned. I told him I was selfish for not allowing him to go in peace, healthy and being happy with mom. I could not take care of him, and I knew it. I told him, I was given him to God, and mom, when God deemed it right for him to become another angel in Heaven. That I have no regrets. I miss him so much. It is hard to get out of bed. Life goes on, but with the pain, it is evr so slow, and I know it will never be the same again. It may be ok, on a different level and phase but never the same. The good memories are all I have. If anything, I am slowly gaining strength from what I thought I could not bear, loosing both parents. I never thought I would loose by in such a short time.......that is devasting.....I do feel orphaned like a child of 2 in a large deparment store, knowing in my heart they won't be back. God bless everyone who goes through this....also anyone who has never lost both parents in a short time, you can never know the feeling just getting or beginning to get over one, and then the other, please never say to somone who has lost both in a short time, I know what you are going thoruogh. Most people loose them in 5 to ten year bouts....within 2 years is too soon, but it was/is God Wills, so I pray he will help me guide and strength me as I surely do need it.

  • Jenny

    I was searching the internet looking for advice and came across this site. I lost my mom in 2007 and just lost my Dad May 1, 2011. It is comforting to know that others have felt exactly what I am feeling. The feeling of being lost, not knowing what to do. That security is now gone, now what? I know there are stages of grief. It is still so fresh. My parents had me when they were older and I get mad thinking it's not fair my friends and people older than me still have parents and even grandparents. I know God is there and He is strengthening me and helping me through, but those are just thoughts I have had. For those who are going through this, rest in Jesus. Isaiah 40:31

  • kezzie

    i am a 39 year old woman (who feels like a lost child) lost my sister in 2007 aged 36 of an overdose, then my stepdad who was a brilliant guy died aged 52 of pneumonia. in 2009. my dad then died april 2010 of a brain anuerism at age 57, and my mother died in april this year of cervical cancer aged 58... i was very close to my mum and we held ourselves together by supporting each other through the other deaths that had occured before.. i now feel like i have no one to turn to as she was THE person i always turned to when i was down or needed advice or help etc.. i have a good group of friends around me but feel unable to express my feelings to them... just want to talk to my mum!!!

  • Chelsea

    I'm 24 years old, I lost my mother when I was 17 and my father just passed away this past March. Both deaths effected me hard, changed the way I think forever. Because of it, I know life is short and deserves to be lived every moment. I know it's hard. No matter what age you are, you are never to old to lose a parent. I have always struggled with some level of anxiety, even as a teenager. Sometimes all you can do for yourself is push through. Pick up a hobby, I'm a knitter. Working with my hands is very therapeutic. You have to remember that your parents would want you to keep going. Life is beautiful. Death can be too. Stay strong everyone. Go outside and enjoy nature, stop and take everything in. Find new friends or support groups on


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