Loss of a Parent

While grieving the loss from any death is unique, the death of a parent presents a life changing crisis for all in the immediate family. No child – no matter the age – should expect a parent’s death to have little or no impact.

Whether the relationship was good or bad, the feelings that one has for a parent are some of the most intense feelings that an individual can have. Parents play a molding and shaping role early in life. We seek their approval and blessing for our actions. We look to them for guidance and direction. Though no parent is perfect, we are able to recognize the incredible impact that they have on our life.

When a parent dies, we not only lose the relationship, we lose a part of the future. We can no longer show the parent the person we are and the life we will have as we get older. We cannot gain from their experiences and wisdom. We cannot share holidays, vacations, birthdays or momentous occasions with one of the most significant individuals in our life.

Helping a Child Cope with the Loss of a Parent

Children of all ages will need to learn coping skills to deal with the death of a parent. The surviving parent will be their main source of support, but often grandparents can provide tremendous comfort and security. The death will result in varying degrees of surprise and shock. Preschool and elementary aged children will need the most sensitive counsel. Any discussion with the child should be age appropriate and should be consistent with what other adult caregivers are providing. Here are a few guidelines:

1. Begin first by listening to what the child is saying. They will want certain things confirmed often. They will probably want to discuss some of the details several times.

2. You will not be able to provide all of the answers. Keep your response focused on the immediate question.

3. Emphasize that death is not a punishment. Help them to see that they have done nothing to cause the death. Assure them that death is a part of the life cycle. Give them concrete examples from nature that would be age appropriate.

4. Realize that children, like adults, grieve in unique ways. For many children, the real, intense grief may come months or years after the actual death. Be sensitive to the child’s needs and be prepared to reassure and assist when the grief hits.

5. Help the child do things that will help them remember the parent. Keeping pictures and special items together, making a photo book, or talking and writing about good memories can be very positive and comforting.

Coping with the Loss of a Parent as an Adult

When a parent dies, there is a need to grieve and mourn the loss of this significant person in your life. If the relationship was a good one, the grieving involves facing the future without the love and companionship that only a parent can provide. It means there will be one less person providing support and guidance. If the relationship was a bad one, the grieving may involve regret that a better relationship will never be able to be formed. It may mean that some strong feelings of anger surface, unearthing feelings of abandonment and betrayal that had been buried for many years.

Feelings Connected with the Loss of a Parent

What kind of feelings can be expected as the grieving process for losing a parent begins?

The type of Grief to Expect | Expect your grief to be unique

Two principles should guide your understanding of the grief process. First, grief is unique. No two people grieve in exactly the same way. An individual’s grief will be influenced first by the type of relationship shared with the parent. Other factors influencing the grief of a parent include the circumstances surrounding the death, the emotional support system of the one grieving, and the personal cultural background.

Types of Emotions when Grieving | Expect to feel a lot of different emotions

Second, the person grieving will feel a multitude of emotions. Some of the more common emotions include:

a) Sadness. The person probably expected to feel sad following the death of the parent, but the depth and intensity of the feelings catch many people off-guard. If this was the second parent to die, the person may feel especially sorrowful. Becoming an adult “orphan” carries both a feeling of abandonment and of significant loneliness. The loss of a parent may also trigger feelings connected with the loss of other close family members.

b) Relief. If the death of the parent was the result of a lengthy illness, the person may well feel relief when death occurs. This feeling will probably be very strong if the individual had been the primary caregiver. This doesn’t mean that there was not love for the parent. It means that there is relief to both the suffering endured by the parent and the intense weight of stress and responsibility placed upon the caregiver’s shoulder.

c) Guilt. Over time, the relationship between the parent and the child may become strained. When the parent actually dies, the child may feel guilty about how the relationship had deteriorated. The child may also feel guilty if an argument or uneasy time had preceded the death and now cannot be mended. The person may wish they could unsay hurtful things. There may be regret that more time could not have been spent together. Working through these feelings is essential to healing.

d) Anger. If the relationship with a parent was abusive or strained, the person may feel unresolved anger toward the dead parent. The death of the parent may actually bring intensely painful memories and feelings to the surface. Anger may also be felt because a good relationship has prematurely ended.

How to Handle Difficult Days when Grieving | Expect some days to be difficult

If you have recently lost a parent, you may be wondering if things will ever return to normal. It may seem like every holiday or birthday sends you reeling into a flood of emotions. Here are a handful of things to remember to help you through those difficult days.

1. Intense feelings on “special” days is normal. You are not regressing. Recognize that these special days are going to cause some unexpected memories and emotions. Allow yourself to shed a tear or be more reflective on those days.

2. Anticipating the approaching special day can be worse than the actual day itself. So many things come up in our minds – many racing at out-of-control speeds. Make plans to do specific things on that day that will both honor your parent and keep you occupied. Tree planting, volunteering at a charity organization, participating at a religious service, or attending a family gathering may be helpful on such occasions.

3. Accept – even seek – invitations to spend the day with friends. It might be a good day to find another person who shares a similar loss. The support you have for each other will strengthen your friendship and take your mind off the absence of the parent.

4. Change family traditions. There is no reason that you must do everything the same way that you did them when your parent was alive. Changing the scenery or the circumstance will take away some of the connection to your parent.

Remember that healing happens gradually. It cannot be placed on a time table. Some people start to feel better in weeks. For others, it may take over a year for the pain to subside and a sense of stability to form. Whatever your circumstance, it is important to be patient with yourself and others and allow the healing process to develop.