What is Parent Loss?
The death of a parent is a rite of passage; no adult child should expect a parent's death to leave them unaltered. It is quite normal for a parental death to have a profound affect on even the most stable of people.
The death of a parent imposes an unexpected crisis for healthy, well-functioning adults. This crisis may lead to psychological distress, depression, alcohol use and abuse, and impaired physical health. These effects are generally unnoticed as the adult child mourning the loss of their parent assumes that they are unusual for their strong response.
When a parent dies, we lose the chance to show them the people we become as we get older. We lose the ability to learn the wisdom their age and experience brings.
There is an added component when you find yourself suddenly the oldest generation in the family. A new set of pressures lies with you on top of the grief you are going through.
We may no longer be small children, but even as adults, we were our parent's child. When a parent is gone, we lose the title of "someone's child" forever.
What is Loss?
Loss is the involuntary separation from something we have possessed and perhaps even treasured, or someone we love and care about.
Everyone experiences a loss at some point in their lives - whether it is major or minor. Loss is universal.
Loss involves emotional pain. Significant losses produce emotional upheaval. Loss requires change and uncertainty and adjustments to situations that are new, unchosen, and uncertain.
There is no right or wrong way to feel after you experience a loss. Minor losses, such as the loss of an opportunity, may bring feelings of frustration, disappointment, or anger. Major losses can lead to similar feelings, overwhelming feelings, sadness, pain, or numbness.
You do not have to be "strong" after a loss to protect others around you. Expressing emotion is how the body and mind process and relieve the pressure of intense or overwhelming emotions. Crying or expressing other emotions does not make you less of a person. It is also not uncommon for people to feel numb. People who don't cry may still be feeling the effects of a loss. Everyone expresses their pain differently.
No one can tell you how you should feel about something. Anyone who tries to tell you that how you are feeling is wrong is wrong.
Sudden Losses are losses that happen due to accidents, crimes, or suicides and that do not give us any time to prepare. These type of losses often shake us to the core, making us question the stability of life. The loss can feel immediate, severe, and agonizing. It can be difficult to sort through many emotions and feelings at the same time, and it may take time and space to adjust to the loss.
Predictable Losses, like those due to terminal illness, allow for us to prepare for the loss. This type of loss also creates two layers of grief: anticipatory grief (the grief related to the anticipation of the loss) and the grief related to the loss itself.
One reason loss is so difficult is that it can be permanent. As humans, our lives are so fluid that the idea of permanence can be difficult to grasp. Further, if your life is structured around the person, object, or concept lost, it can be difficult to adjust to new patterns and routines.
How to Cope With Loss:
Grief is one of the most common reactions to a loss. There are typically five stages of grief:
These stages may happen in any order, at any time, or not at all. Some people feel some but not all of the stages of grief. Because there is not a typical loss and each situation is different, it is hard to figure out what a "typical reaction" is. Some people feel:
- Shock and disbelief - difficulty accepting what happened, numbness.
- Sadness - one of the more common feelings experienced. This may also be emptiness, despair, loneliness, and crying.
- Guilt - things you said, shouldn't have said, or wanted to say, not preventing the death.
- Anger - feelings of anger and resentment.
- Physical symptoms - aches, pains, headaches, nausea, changes in sleep or weight.
However you are feeling, it can be overwhelming and out of control. One way to manage intense emotions is to observe, describe, and label your emotions. Sometimes putting a name to your emotion can help you express it. Also remember that we experience emotions like a wave - the emotion will build, crest, and recede.
Talk to friends and family who love you and make you feel good about yourself. Lean on people who love you and care about you.
Don't expect that you're going to "get over it." The only way to "get over" a loss is to go through the stages of grieving. There's no reason to try to be the strong one - just let yourself feel however you feel.
Write about it. Sometimes the act of writing down how you're feeling can help solidify those feelings and help you to grieve your loss.
Let yourself feel the loss. The only way to get through a loss is to go through the stages of grief. You can't bypass it, no matter how much you'd like to. Sit with your feelings and acknowledge them.
Talk to a therapist or grief counselor - someone who is trained to help you get through your grief.
Exercise - exercise releases endorphins, which are the "feel-good" hormones.
Don't minimize your own loss. If it was a loss, it was a loss. Losses are meant to be grieved.
Don't compare your loss to others' loss. It's apples and oranges. You feel a loss how you feel it, not how someone else feels it.
Be sure to take care of yourself. Go through your daily hygiene routines, get up, and do something.
IT'S OKAY TO BE SAD!
Tips for Coping With the Loss of a Parent:
Remind yourself that you have every right to grieve the loss of your parent. An adult child may be the forgotten mourner as other family members assume that the adult child has moved on with their life and is not as affected by the illness or death of a parent. It's not true. The loss of a parent is painful at any age.
Use the tragedy of losing a parent to grow as a person. Use it to change how you approach your own aging process. Use it to become a better friend and partner and to learn how to express the love you have for others.
Forgive yourself for being human. Some of us have remarkably troubled relationships with our parents, and the loss of a parent may cause us immeasurable guilt, as there's no amending any past troubles.
Be tolerant of your limits - both physically and emotionally. Loss can leave you exhausted and unable to keep up with normal activities. This is okay. Lighten your schedule and give yourself time to heal.
Grieve in measured doses. Life does, indeed, go on. Don't force yourself to think all day every day about your parent's death. Of course you must mourn to heal, but you must also go on with your life.
Find ways to grieve and share the memories of your parent.
Lean on family and friends. They can be a great source of comfort during the loss of a parent, even if they've not experienced the loss of a parent themselves.
The Emotions You May Feel After A Parent Dies:
Sadness - it's expected to feel sad after a parent dies, but the overwhelming grief may catch you off guard. Especially if it's the second parent to die, leaving you an adult orphan.
Anger - if you came from an abusive or dysfunctional family, it may bring those feelings of unresolved anger back out to the surface. If you came from a loving family, you may be angry that you've now lost it forever.
Relief - if your parent was ill before they passed away, you may feel relief when they do die. The relief may be especially evident if you were the caregiver for your sick parent. Feelings of relief do not imply you are a "bad person" or "bad child"; it's a natural response.
Guilt - should you have had a difficult relationship with your parent, you may experience guilt over what was said (or what was not said). Maybe you feel guilt because you didn't spend enough time with your parent. Guilt is very normal.
Abandonment - even as an adult, you may feel deeply abandoned when your parent dies. You are no longer their child and you no longer have those ties to your past. Abandonment is especially common when both parents are deceased.
Death of a Parent Impacts the Family:
Grief is as unique as the person who experiences it.
If you have siblings, the death of a parent will affect them differently than they affect you. The death of a parent may bring up old (and new) rivalries between siblings, and this is natural following a parent's death. Do your best to encourage open communication during these times.
When the death of one parent leaves the other a widower, try to understand how difficult the death of their spouse was. Dealing with the loss of a spouse is very different than losing a parent. Try to be as caring and compassionate as you can toward your surviving parent. Here is a resource for partner loss.
The death of a parent may be very challenging for your children to handle. Just as your relationship with your parent was unique, their relationship with their grandparent was also unique. Here are some resources for helping a child cope with a loss.
Additional Resources For Parent Loss:
Journey of Hearts - a wonderful site with ways to remember your loved one and ways to deal with the stages of grief.
BeliefNet story on how to grieve the death of a parent.
LoveToKnow offers great advice on grieving the death of a parent.
A comprehensive checklist on what to do after the death of a parent in regards to insurance, wills, estates, and more.
Helping Teenagers Cope with Grief - teens are often a special group to work with after the death of a loved one. This article gives insight into ways to get through to them and help them open up.