Date of Award


Degree Type


Degree Name

Doctor of Philosophy



Major Professor

Sandra Thomas

Committee Members

Pat Droppleman, Mark Hector, Jan Brown


The purpose of this inquiry is to develop an initial understanding and description of the meaning of the experience of an elder after the death of an adult child. A significant research gap exists in studying elder bereavement and the death of an adult child. The research sample was obtained from elderly participants who were known by the researcher to have had the experience of the death of an adult child. A snowball

Responses to the qualitative questions in this study were analyzed using the existential phenomenological method as described by Thomas and polio (2002). Data was reviewed by the researcher and a group of diverse interpretive researchers from the University of Tennessee in Knoxville. This group assisted the researcher to describe the thematic structure of the elder’s experiences.

During the interviews, the elders acknowledged that their lives were permanently changed from the death experience. This phenomenological study revealed that the death of an adult child has deep personal meaning. Four themes emerged from the data. The predominant theme was “lifelong hurt.” The remaining themes were: “just not real,” “missing/holding on” and “struggling/seeking solace.” The elder’s experience revolved around these continuous themes. In contrast to classic grief theories, participants’ grief has not been resolved. The elder’s life has changed and things are not the same way as there were before the death. The experience of losing a child led them into introspection and existential questioning.

The elder parent’s experience is distinct in quality and meaning. During this research, elders seemed to benefit from discussing their experience in a personal yet professional forum. Such discussion could be a purposeful nursing intervention. From this study, nurses should recognize the need to share with elders the opportunity for personal growth. Also, the grief experience can facilitate positive changes in attitudes and values. During the interviews, the elders expressed new realities and new self-realizations. Important to an elder’s developmental stage, the grief experience offers a deeper understanding of life and death, that before was not possible. Nurses need to know that the elder’s grief experience after the death of an adult child does not have a distinct ending.

This investigation accomplished the goal of describing the experience and meaning of the death of an adult child to an elder. The adult child’s death has permanently changed the elder’s present and future life. The unique contribution of this research has been the rich description of a life altering experience.

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