woman standing next to coffin
Sarah Biren
Sarah Biren
March 22, 2024 ·  5 min read

How Losing a Parent Can Impact Your Brain

People tend to assume that the loss of a parent is more traumatic for a young child, and neglect to support adults experiencing it. But the reality is virtually everyone will experience losing a parent, and unfortunately, dealing with the grief is not discussed or researched often.

The common result is that when the tragedy happens, the sufferer might feel detached and alone in their mourning. Not to mention, when their grief continues over a long period of time, their loved ones can become impatient, wishing the mourner would ‘get over it,’ oblivious to the deep impact of losing a parent at any age.

However, experts agree that it’s important to recognize just how long-lasting the impact of the loss of a parent really is.

The Effects of Losing a Parent

Studies have proven parental loss can have negative outcomes, mentally, emotionally, and physically. Of course, everyone experiences loss differently, and the effects can vary depending on the individuals:

  • past experiences,
  • coping mechanisms,
  • relationship with the parent,
  • environment and culture,
  • and the circumstances of the death. (1)

Studies on Parental Bereavement

A 1970 cohort study examined over 11,000 participants to test the long-term effects of a parent’s death in childhood on adult life. They compared 1) orphans, 2) children from divorced or unstable families, and 3) children who lived with two, healthy parents.

By age 30, the orphans had greater unemployment rates— and even those who were employed worked in unskilled positions — than the other groups. They also had a higher rate of smoking cigarettes, along with symptoms of chronic depression, and a feeling that ‘they will never get what they want out of life.’ (2)

Another study was conducted to focus on the perspective and experience of the child. Through written entries or lengthy interviews, 37 participants aged 20–80 related their stories.

The research found that in cases where the child lacked open communication, support, or stability in daily life during the mourning period, the long-term emotional damage was worsened. The effects of a death can last as long as 71 years, depending on the management of the grief. Proper support, communication, consistency in life can minimize the suffering. (1)

Gender may also be a factor in how a person experiences loss. A survey including 8,865 adults found that sons take the death of their fathers harder, while girls struggle more from the death of their mothers. (3)

What We Can Learn from Brain Imaging

While no one should ever try to explain or understand grief solely with knowledge from brain imaging studies, there are a handful that can help us understand what is actually going on in the brain when someone experiences grief.

In a 2003 study published in The American Journal of Psychiatry, researchers saw that three regions of the brain are involved in processing grief: the posterior cingulate cortex, frontal cortex, and cerebellum. But what was significant was that those parts of the brain also help to regulate human sleep and appetite. This may explain, according to clinical social worker Jumoke Omojola, why grieving individuals experience “headaches, stomach aches, dizziness, tightness in the chest too much sleep, too little sleep, overeating, or lack of appetite.”

Another study in 2008 from the Journal of Clinical Oncology found a startling link between unresolved grief and health conditions such as immune disorders, hypertension, cardiac events, and cancer. Compared to parents who had worked through their grief after losing a mother and/or father, “parents with unresolved grief reported significantly worsening psychological health… and physical health.”

To understand the process of grieving losing a parent, it helps to be familiar with the conventional stages of grief:

The Five Stages of Grief

  1. Denial – The sufferers are numbed and disbelieving of the situation.
  2. Anger – They blame others for their grief, and may act violently.
  3. Bargaining – They “negotiate with higher powers” to bring back loved ones.
  4. Depression – They feel overwhelming sadness, and no desire to socialize.
  5. Acceptance – They come to terms with their grief and begin to move forward.

People experience these phases in different orders and can skip or repeat some. It’s important to be aware of regular symptoms of grief; a prolonged grief disorder (PGD) is when the expected symptoms of grief continue for months after the death, and the patient has lost motivation and the ability to carry on with normal life.

Healing from Grief

If you have lost a parent, treat yourself with patience. Even if your loss happened years ago, remember to value your feelings – they are real. You can help to support your healing by considering some of these approaches:

  1. Interventions – Sometimes a sufferer won’t even consider treatment. Relatives and friends should make an effort to support the person and suggest help. The mourner is likely to refuse and rationalize the prolonged mourning. A professional therapist can assist in mediating an intervention. (4)
  2. Grief Counseling – This method addresses the emotions surrounding loss, and allows the patient to express them through role playing, trauma therapy, and cognitive behavior therapy. (5)
  3. Support Groups – Group therapy is a good way to communicate and share the painful experience and to form meaningful relationships.
  4. Medication – For patients who suffer from clinical depression alongside grief, antidepressants can be helpful if prescribed by a doctor.
  5. Socialize – Connecting with loved ones is healing for mourners; other people can be a listening ear or bring joy and comfort to them.
  6. Selfcare – Maintaining a healthy lifestyle can significantly diminish the urge begin unhealthy behaviors, like overeating, depression, and substance addiction. Remember to eat healthily, relax, meditate, and sleep 7-8 hours every night.
  7. Spiritual Healing – For religious people, turning to their faith and traditions can be therapeutic and comforting in a time of pain. (6)


  1. The long-term impact of early parental death: lessons from a narrative study.” NCBI. Jackie Ellis, Chris Dowrick, and Mari Lloyd-Williams. February 2013.
  2. Long-term Impact of Childhood Bereavement.” Gov. UK. Samantha Parsons. September 2011.
  3. Death of Parents and Adult Psychological and Physical Well-Being: A Prospective U.S. National Study.” NCBI. Nadine F. Marks, Heyjung Jun, and Jieun Song. 2007.
  4. Dealing with Grief: What is Normal, and What is Complicated Grief?Skywood Recovery.
  5. Grief and Bereavement Counseling.” Promises.
  6. Complicated Grief.” MayoClinic.