Becoming an Adult After Losing a Parent

Editor’s Note: This article previously appeared in a different format as part of The Atlantic’s Notes section, retired in 2021.

Many readers have written in detailing how they didn’t truly become an adult until one or both of their parents died. Our first reader, Crystal, was a 20-year-old college student when tragedy struck:

On July 5, 1987, Mom called and told me Dad had died. My life changed dramatically after that, and I felt alone and vulnerable. My dad always helped me whenever I needed him—advice about guys, helping me move, fixing my car … he was always there.

We also shared a birthday on July 29th. I knew I was truly “on my own” when I celebrated the first birthday without him.

This reader was also 20 when his dad died:

I’m the youngest of five siblings and the only one who left home (at 18), never to return. When I lost my father, my uncle told me that “No boy can be a man while his father is alive.”

John Mason pinpoints the day his father passed away:

Sunday, March 16, 2014.

The process began on a Friday. I was home for Spring Break during my junior year, and my dad, Bill, was feeling a little under the weather. I didn’t think anything of it. But my mom insisted he go to the doctor, which was prescient and wise, but it didn’t matter in the end: He was diagnosed with cancer. Specifically it was a type of leukemia that to this day the doctors still cannot identify.

He passed that Sunday, as suddenly as he was diagnosed. We didn’t even get a chance to say goodbye.

I say we, because my eight-year-old brother said between rivers of tears something I’ll never forget: “This is the saddest day of my life. I will never forget this day for the rest of my life.”

That was the day I became an adult, because that is the day I began to raise my brother alongside my mom. It wasn’t immediate; it was a process. Looking back, and looking at the parallel trajectories of my closest friends’ maturation, I notice some subtle and not-so-subtle differences in how we act. I tend to be on time more often, I think, because for me if I’m late, it means my brother stands alone in his school parking lot. I also think about money a lot more, because I had to take over my family’s finances immediately, deal with the will, and plan our family’s future. They rag on me for being so concerned about money, but how can I explain to them that money acts to help fill in as the shield for my family that my dad always was?

I’m more serious now. Perhaps that’s a part of my natural temperament, but nonetheless I take things more seriously in general. I’m more focused on trying to plan my career meticulously, so that I can have the control necessary to help raise my brother while also growing myself. And I think more about risks to myself and my family. I had a heavy dose of reality that day, of the fragility of life and of the need to plan for contingencies. We got lucky in that my father left us okay; we might not be so lucky next time.

Maybe it’s reality, in its infinite forms, that makes you an adult. It made me one.

Cynthia Pury became one after she lost her mom:

My dad died when I was 12, and my mother died when I was in college, so I became an adult shortly after her death. I remember sitting in my dorm room a few weeks after the funeral and realizing that all of my life’s choices were now being made by me and for me, without any supervision. If I shaved my head and wore spiked leather (it was the ‘80s), no one would care. If I dropped out of college, no one besides me would care. If I finished my degree and went to grad school, no one besides me would care.

It was both sad and liberating; I knew that anything I worked at would be because I wanted it.

Another reader, Christine, also lost her mom at a relatively young age:

I didn’t become an adult until after my mother died. My father had died when I was 18, and a lot of the milestones that mark adulthood followed his death. But it wasn’t until four years later when my mom died, just as suddenly and unexpectedly as my dad, that I truly became an adult.

The realization didn’t happen the moment that she died; it was actually a few months later, on Christmas morning. I was spending the holiday with my relatively new step-dad and his family. He had been married to my mom for only five months when she died.

That morning I came out of the guest bedroom and saw the Christmas tree lit up and was struck with the realization that nothing would ever be the same, and that no one would ever take care of me again. So I made breakfast for everyone, like my mom would have done, and came to terms with the real possibility that no one would make me breakfast on Christmas morning ever again. Coming to terms with such a thing represented the passage into adulthood for me.

Another reader:

I would say I’ve truly become an adult since the death of my mother six years ago, when I was 29. I rely entirely on myself now, since I have no family to consult about important things. I depend on experts (and the internet, let’s be real) to advise me and ultimately make decisions on my own. Being single, childless, and motherless has some perks and some disadvantages. Perk: No one tells me when I’m screwing up. Disadvantage: No one tells me when I’m screwing up.

One more reader, David Swider, lost his mother in an especially tragic way:

I grew up in a pretty typical set of 1960s and 1970s neighborhoods and turned 18 in 1976, right after graduating from high school. I was starting college the following January and figured that moment was when I was going to really enter adulthood. I was close, but not for any form of chronological event, but because of a change in my family.

On Valentine’s Day, 1977, my mother committed suicide, leaving me, my two brothers and my dad behind.

I think it was right then that I became an adult—not because of the horrible event itself, but because up until then, I had been able to see myself as this individual. I had chores around the house, but I didn’t have any actual responsibility for the welfare of others.

My grandmother came out from Detroit for a few months to help us get situated, teaching me how to shop for groceries, how to cook, and how to manage a kitchen. She taught my brothers other items, but we all learned together and could do each others’ chores. But it was the obligation to be home from work or school to make dinner for my family and to ensure that everyone was well fed every day that made me realize that as adults, this is our obligation—to care for the welfare of others and to do something about it.

I accepted that obligation, and with it, adulthood.