Here is a surviving guide to dealing with the loss of a parent – a guide that explains the emotions that may accompany the loss, and offers tips and advice on navigating through the loss of a parent.
Generally, we expect that our parents will pass away before we do. However, that does not prepare people for dealing with the loss of their parents or eliminate how painful the process can be. It often leaves bereaved children and adults bewildered. The bond and love shared between a parent and a child is one of the most significant forms of human attachment, and no matter the age or circumstance surrounding the death of a parent, it is normal to feel a range of emotions.
There is additional information about parental loss, including how to cope with the loss itself, what to do with their legacy, and where to find parenting figures if a parent is deceased. Here are some tips on coping after the death of a parent either as a bereaved child, young person or adult.
Bereaved Children and Young people
Losing a parent will always be a traumatic experience for anyone, no matter their age, but even more so, a distressing experience for children and young people. As a young child, they are more than likely to have developed a strong form of attachment to a parent. However, the effects of the death on the child and young person may differ and be dependent on different entities such as their age, family background, personality traits, stage of development and any previous experiences of death that may have been witnessed.
Children and young people may find it easier to adjust from grieving to “normal” life based on their nature. However, this should not underestimate the impact that grief might have on them. If you are the surviving parent or perhaps you are the aunt or uncle of the child it would be beneficial to engage in some direct and honest form of communication regarding the bereavement, ask the child questions and see how they feel – as opposed to shying away from the topic at hand. It is imperative to let a child know that showing emotions about their deceased parent is perfectly okay.
Childhood grief is more than likely to be a persistent thing, and in most cases, a child may not fully come to terms with their grief or understand the weight of losing a parent until much later in life. When they are a young adult, for example starting university, getting their first job or car, getting married or having their first child are all significant milestones that would encourage the presence of a parent.
Losing a parent as an adult
Losing a parent as a much older adult does not mean it will be any easier or that the effects of the death will be less triggering either-even if your parent died at a very old age! Ideally, when parents live their lives through to old age, we typically have time to “get ready” for the loss. But, other times, parents may die unexpectedly, or too early in life, leaving behind children and other loved ones.
Even as adults, we are hardly ever ready for the death of a mother or father and no matter your age – you will always be a child, especially in the eyes of your parents. If you had a very strong relationship with your parent – you may feel a certain struggle with your sense of identity. Even at times, when one parent may have passed on much earlier in your life, and the other parent dies much later in your life – this can even cause a great sense of loneliness.
However, if you had somewhat of a toxic, troubled, or complex relationship with your parent, their death can unearth some triggering responses and prompt various forms of unforgiveness, guilt or regret. You may not just find yourself grieving the death of a parent but grieving the relationship that you wish you had with them. Their death takes away the possibility of reconciliation or the ability to talk about events that happened in the past that may have caused a strain on your relationship.
Even with losing a parent as an older adult, there are still monumental events that you would like them to be present at, for example, when you have children or perhaps when your children are getting married or having their children. It is not an absurd thing for you to want them to be present in their old age to witness such milestones.
Maybe your parent physically helped a significant amount with your own family, or perhaps you are a lone parent, and your deceased parent was very supportive when it came to looking after their grandchildren – this can cause a sense of pain and confusion, wondering how you will be able to navigate through life without them.
No matter your age when your parent dies, you do not have to feel the need to be strong because you are an adult! Remember, you are still their child and have a right to grieve and be emotional irrespective of the opinions of others.
What emotions are experienced when someone loses a parent?
Your parent’s death may mean having to review the past while dealing with the present, and this can consequently leave you filled with a mix of complex emotions. You may feel all the emotions talked about below. In addition, you may harbour other emotions. Allow yourself fully experience, unpack, process, and express these feelings.
Feelings of regret may arise. Perhaps you wish you had told your parent you love them more, or maybe you wish you had spent more time with them before their passing. There will always be plenty of should, could and would-haves. However, it is important to remember that you cannot change time – and cannot beat yourself up about things that you cannot possibly change. Remind yourself that you did your best considering the circumstances you were in.
Perhaps you leaned on your parent for advice, or they were your first point of call in difficult times – that feeling of fear may arise when you realise they are no longer a phone call away. The thought of moving on in life without them, even as a family, can cause you great distress. The loss of a parent can even cause you to fear the death of loved ones around you too!
Any death can leave one in a state of confusion, but most especially so when it is that of a parent. If a monumental figure in your life, such as a parent, has died – it can leave you feeling very overwhelmed and in turn confused and also in denial as to what is happening around you.
In cases where you may have had an estranged relationship or perhaps lived a long distance away from your parent, it is common and understandable if you feel a sense of guilt. Perhaps you feel guilty for not contacting them enough or not seeing them regularly. However, you cannot carry that guilt with you forever.
This one may come as a surprise but if your parent suffered from a terminal illness, you may be filled with a sense of relief when they pass away. Why? Because they are no longer experiencing the pain or agony that came with their illness. This is a perfectly normal emotion or feeling to have and one should not feel guilty for doing so. No one wants to see their parent in anguish, so it is okay to feel a sense of relief that their suffering has ended.
7 tips on surviving the death of a parent
- Acknowledge the magnitude of your loss
This is a difficult but necessary thing to do! Surviving the loss of a parent means that you will need to learn to live without them. This can be a hard reality to come to terms with, but you need to accept the reality that your parent is physically gone and this new reality (as unbelievable as it may seem) is permanent. It can take months or even years to fully acknowledge the death of a parent and the vacuum that their presence has left.
Before coming to terms with this actual realisation, you may be tempted to continue with life the way it was before your parent’s death. However, acknowledging the magnitude of this loss means embracing the new norm and accepting that life has changed, and your life will need to readjust to reflect this. This may be recollecting or reorganising items from your deceased parent.
It could also be a moment where you actively decide to pursue your faith journey again, showing less discontent towards God. Grief and particularly the loss of a parent can cause one to greatly question God’s existence or His motives – but acknowledging this loss can lead us to a place of understanding. This could also look like reorganising roles that your parent may have had and perhaps reassigning them to other family members or taking the responsibility on ourselves.
- Let people help you
While grieving the loss of a parent it’s easy to feel like you need to bear the burden alone. You may not want to burden individuals with what you feel may be your “emotional baggage”. However, dealing with such a huge loss is pretty much impossible to do alone. At a time like this, leaning on your support system would be of great benefit. The reality is that those around you will want to help you.
You do not need to feel any sense of guilt for accepting help from a friend or fellow family member – they would not be offering to help if they did not want to. So, whether it is them offering to take your younger siblings off your hands or taking your children for a few days. Maybe it was your parent that would always take your child to school, and a friend has offered to take them for a specific time frame instead. Maybe you need someone to write a to-do list, help collect weekly shopping or help out with some of the roles that your parent occupied – let people help you with this!
It may require a great deal of vulnerability but do not be afraid to lean on your support network during this time.
- Give yourself the time and space to grieve
Always remember that grief cannot be measured by time. Your feelings are always valid, no matter how the loss of your parent occurred, the circumstances surrounding their death or even their age. As you are the one experiencing the grief, your emotions are justifiable even if they do not align with the way others think you should feel. There is no right or wrong way to grieve the loss of a parent and neither is there a time limit to do so – therefore never feel the need to bury your emotions for the sake of others.
Grief is a complex journey and one where you should allow yourself to feel all the emotions that come along with it. Pushing away your grief and the emotions that come with it can lead to incomplete grief. However, try not to stay in such a downcast place forever- always aim to pick yourself back up. If you are grieving the loss of a parent and finding it a struggle to process your grief, you could keep a journal and use it as an outlet to write down your emotions, thoughts, and feelings.
- Find ways to remember your parent
Do things that will help you feel close to your parent, even though they are not physically present. For example, if your parent was a chef or a baker – you and your siblings could continue to make some of their favourite recipes. Perhaps your parent was an avid home gardener, you could keep their passion alive by planting some of their favourite flowers with your children – this would also help your grandchildren to know more about them and what they loved!
Such activities help honour the legacy of your parent and provide a measure of comfort for you too (as their child). They also help you to work through your emotions and help keep your memory of them alive. If you are looking for a way to honour the legacy of a deceased parent, you may find this article useful (link to blog post 2 from this series).
- Be prepared for emotions to return
As much as we would love to say that things get easier along the grief journey, it is not always the case! Feelings come in ebbs and flows – some days you may be fine and other days not so good – and that is perfectly fine too. You must prepare yourself for the emotional journey ahead, as the emotions stemming from the death of your parent will return.
These feelings may arise from the smallest of things: watching a particular programme may remind you of the death of your parent, it may be a certain smell or even walking down a certain street. These occurrences are not strange and as overwhelming as these thoughts may be, do not try to shun them off or pretend like they do not exist, or be hard on yourself in the process. Allow yourself to feel and experience all these emotions fully no matter how often they return – it is an imperative step while surviving the death of a parent.
Emotions may also be quite high during anniversaries or special occasions like Mother’s Day or Father’s Day, your parent’s birthday, their wedding anniversary, or national holidays. Emotions can even extend to your dates like your birthdays or other monumental moments like graduating, getting married or having a child.
- Seek professional help – grief support groups, therapy
Losing a parent does not mean suffering the consequences alone – even if you feel friends and family may not be able to comprehend the weight of your emotions. You can always seek professional help. Seeking help from other family members and friends is advised and helpful, too, but connecting yourself with a grief support group achieves a different result.
By signing up for a grief support group, you interact with a diverse set of people that have experienced (at times) the same type of grief. Such groups help one another to navigate through the journey of losing a loved one. It can sometimes be aggravating when people who have not experienced the loss of a parent offer their advice.
Most of the time this will come from a good place, and even so, sometimes their bid to comfort you may do more harm than good! Joining a grief support group will provide a shared understanding and experience and a space where you feel vulnerable enough to share emotions that you may have been unable to express with others.
You may also want to seek professional help from a therapist or grief counsellor. Grief comes with many complex emotions, especially when it concerns losing a parent. A therapist can help you unpack these emotions and offer support, guidance, validation and coping strategies as you begin adjusting to life without your parent.
Working with therapists and grief counsellors also provides a secure environment where you can unload the various emotions that come with losing a parent. Whether these are feelings of anger, guilt, fear or other prolonged emotions that you may not have even identified following on from your parent’s death. Therapists can provide compassionate support where you will feel comfortable enough to share your emotions without being judged.
There is absolutely no embarrassment in seeking extra support following the death of a parent – this is a useful tool that will greatly help you along your grief journey. It is a healthy application to assist you after the death of a parent.
- Take care of your well-being
Grief can take its toll on both your physical and mental well-being. Even during grief, and as hard as it sounds, you need to ensure you prioritise yourself too! The emotions that come with losing a parent can affect your mental state, sleeping patterns, concentration, appetite, or ability to handle tasks alone. It is easy to become so overwhelmed and consumed with the grief process that you forget to care for yourself.
Try not to throw yourself back into work or the hustle and bustle of everyday life immediately after losing a parent. This may do more harm than good, and you may be forcing yourself to take on more than you can handle at that moment.
Aim to find a balance! Do not feel guilty or selfish about doing things that make you happy after the death of a parent. Ensure you get enough sleep, exercise, try and eat well, keep yourself hydrated, be mindful, stay active, and remember to rest and recharge.
It may seem tough and self-seeking to even think about dedicating time for yourself, but prioritising your health becomes even more important as you recover from the loss of your parent.
Never forget that grieving is a natural and healthy process that differs from one person to the next. Coping after the death of a parent can leave you feeling drained, irrespective of the type of relationship you had with them. Be kind and patient with yourself during the process as you take time to adjust to the change that comes with the loss. Embrace the grief process, do not subdue it, or deny it – simply work through it and heal! As simple as this sounds, grieving the loss of a parent takes time and this loss will impact your life forever.
Have you lost a parent or parents? What advice would you give someone experiencing the same type of grief? How did you cope with it all? Let us know in the comments section.