Loss of a Parent

The loss of a parent is the most common form of bereavement in the United States. Each year 5% of the population experiences the death of a parent. Parents are expected to die before their children, so the death of our parents are presumably deaths that we are supposed to take in stride. Unfortunately, there is an unstated message in our society that when a parent is middle-aged or elderly that their death is somehow less of a loss than other losses. One of the situations you will undoubtedly face in grieving for your parent is the likelihood that some people will treat it as a non-event. However, the fact remains, losing a parent can be hard ~ very hard. There is an enormous variety of ways that a parent’s death can affect their adult children. Everybody comes into the situation of bereavement bringing with him or her a whole history of past experience with loss. Your particular background of loss will partially account for your individual grief reaction. The more significant your relationship was with your parent, the more likely that your reaction to their death will be intense. Grieving is, in part, the cost of emotional commitment. Consider the fact that you have known your parents longer than you have known anyone else. They cared for you as you grew up. They have shared your joys, sorrows, failures and accomplishments. Even as a totally independent adult, you probably still rely on your parents for part of your identity. You have always been their son or daughter. Your feelings of loneliness and emptiness may be because you feel like an “orphan.” This contradicts your awareness of being an adult and can make you uncomfortable. These feelings, however, are quite common. As one person put it, “I lost the only unconditional love of my life when I lost my parents.” Attachment and the social dimension of loss largely explain why a parent’s death affects you as it does. Your lingering attachment feelings tend to make your parent’s death more significant and your emotional independence tends to diminish the effects. This is why you may have confusing, mixed feelings about their death. Your age at the time of a parent’s death will also affect the feelings you have. Grown children in their early adult years may have extended grief because of their lingering financial and emotional dependency on their parents. They almost always feel cheated for not having their parent’s participation in important life events. As son(s) and daughter(s) grow older, their parents also age. Some parents may require a great deal of attention. Adult children often experience a role reversal. They may become more and more the parent as the parent becomes more and more the child, especially if the parent suffers a decline in mental or physical health. If the loss of a parent occurs when you are in your fifties or sixties, it may be difficult for sons and daughters and their spouses due to the probable involvement in their parent’s care. If your parent died following a slow decline, you will probably feel less shocked than you would after a sudden loss. You have had time to anticipate their death. Grieving will be eased by the thought that your parent died an accepting, peaceful death. You may seek consolation in the thought that you had a chance to say goodbye, and to express your love and gratitude. Many sons and daughters in this situation report a great sense of relief as well as sorrow. A common phenomenon is for one parent to die shortly after the death of a beloved mate. When this happens, you are faced with a double loss. This complicates and extends your grieving process. A parent’s death can exaggerate other emotional crises going on in your life. The death of parents often brings up feelings about your own mortality. You have replaced them as the older generation and you have taken on the role as head of your family. At the very least, it may underscore the reality of how short life is and how rapidly time passes. This can be a painful realization. Family celebrations and traditions will be especially difficult for everyone after a death. Mother’s Day and Father’s Day are going to be hard. Births and special events in your children’s lives may be emotionally charged. Your parent’s birthday may also bring up unexpectedly strong feelings after their death. Even your own birthday may be difficult because it was the start of your relationship with your parents. Some people prefer to acknowledge their recollections; others prefer to ignore them. Either response is understandable. The intensity of recollection is greatest during the first few years following a death. Be aware that changes may occur between you and the people close to you following your parent’s death. These changes can be positive. The death of your parents may bring you closer to your own children. Often a grandparent is a child’s first death experience. Many of the conversations that you initiate to support your children will help you as well. The sharing of thoughts and feelings will be a model for them in dealing with future losses. Other relationships may also be altered. One parent’s death may draw you closer to your other parent. Relationships with your brother(s) and sister(s) can also strengthen. Most times, death prompts family members to reconsider what they mean to each other. You may also emerge from the experience with an enhanced sense of self-reliance, capability and maturity. One of the most unusual aspects of parental loss is the potential for positive change in this aftermath. The grief reactions you may have to the loss of a parent are unpredictable. Researchers find most people experience a mixture of emotions rather than any one particular extreme. Whatever you are feeling, be assured that your reactions are healthy and appropriate. You have every right to feel what you feel. Please allow yourself to take the time you need to grieve the death of your parent. No one can tell you how you should be feeling. Although you may take special pains to maintain your privacy during the grief process, you should not deny the emotions you are feeling. Your parents brought you into this world and provided you with traditional wisdom that you will pass onto your children and others close to you. Their memories will always live on in the minds and hearts of those who loved them.

Grief: The Reaction to Loss

No two people will experience a loss in exactly the same way. Your grief will be as individual as your fingerprint. No one can tell you how to grieve. There are no formulas for how much a loss will hurt or how long grief will last. Try not to compare yourself to others in similar situations. nAlthough everyone experiences grief in different ways, there are common patterns and feelings that most individuals will share. Allow yourself to feel these normal emotions so that you can cope with your grief and go on with life. It is important to understand what some normal reactions might be. This will make your behavior more predictable and less frightening to experience. Knowledge of the process will help you to have a better sense of control over your reactions to loss. Your grief will be different depending on the circumstances of death and your coping strategies. A sudden death, an accident, a suicide or other untimely deaths may complicate your mourning. If you face a change of environment or a loss of financial security as a consequence of death, this can complicate your grief. The kind of relationship you had with the person who has died is very important to the intensity of your grief. The closer your emotional attachment is to this person, the greater your potential for having a strong grief reaction. It might be said that grief is the price you pay for love. Your age, sex, religious beliefs and previous experiences with death will all influence your grief. In short, no one can predict how you will experience grief. On the reverse side you will find a list of some of the behaviors of grief. You may feel many of these; you may feel few. Your grief will be different from anyone else. Remember your family and friends will be grieving in their own unique way. Be mindful of this, otherwise, you may feel disappointed and all the more isolated. Certain reactions to death are so common that almost everyone experiences them. The period of shock is not long. If the death was unexpected, you may find yourself denying at first that the person has died. This response is nature’s way of insulating you from what is happening. Another immediate reaction to a death is anger. Most of us were taught as children to avoid anger. Therefore you may feel guilty when your anger will not go away. You may also feel guilty for any number of reasons. It is common to feel guilty for even being alive. Depression is probably the hardest part of grief. You may be flooded with despair and feel as if it will never get better. Please try to remember that it does. The anguish occurs when you realize the full impact and the meaning of your loss. The periods of very intense longing and sorrow will diminish with time. You will not move from one mood to another in any kind of sequence. You will probably have many feelings all at once. Sometimes people become concerned they are getting worse as time progresses rather than better. You may feel worse in six months than you expected you would. Try not to set expectations for yourself by the calendar. Take one step at a time, one hour at a time, and one day at a time. As time goes on and you allow yourself to feel the pain of loss, your grief will diminish. You will not always feel the way you do now. This does not mean you will forget your loved one; it means you accept their death and are coping with life without them. Even though your relationship with your loved one has changed forever, its existence and your feelings live on forever. For many, talking with trusted friends is an effective means of releasing emotions and undergoing healing. Activity is another crucial ingredient of the healing process. Work has a therapeutic value. If you are at home, try to follow a schedule. Physical activity is difficult to undertake while you are feeling depressed, but it can be very restoring to heart and soul. After the early period of grief has passed, finding a group to join can also be helpful. Sometimes, the only thing that keeps us going is the knowledge that humans can transform something hurtful into positive learning. Ask yourself this question, “Now that this has happened to me, what shall I do about it?” This question can open doors to the future and give you hope for tomorrow. All of us have both the right and the responsibility to take our losses seriously. Grief, when ignored or denied, can harm us in countless ways. Facing our losses is part of how we create our tomorrow. Therese Rando, author of Grieving: How To Go On Living When Someone You Love Dies, says, “Grief allows us to let go of that which was, so we’ll be ready for that which is to be.” BEHAVIORS OF GRIEF Because grief can be so painful and overwhelming, it frightens us. Many people wonder if the feelings they have are normal. MOST PEOPLE WHO SUFFER A LOSS EXPERIENCE ONE OR MORE OF THE FOLLOWING:

    • A feeling of tightness in their throat or heaviness in their chest.
    • Have an empty feeling in their stomach and lose their appetite.
    • Feel guilty at times and angry at other times.
    • Feel restless and look for activity but find it difficult to concentrate.
    • Feel as though the loss is not real; that it did not happen.
    • Sense the loved one’s presence, as in finding themselves expecting the person to walk in the door at the usual time, hearing their voice, or seeing their face.
    • Wander aimlessly, forget, and neglect to finish things that they have started around the house.
    • Have difficulty sleeping, and dream of their loved one frequently.
    • Experience an intense preoccupation with the life of the one who has died.
    • Assume mannerism or traits of their loved one.
    • Feel guilty or angry over things that did or did not happen in their relationship with the person who has died.
    • Feel intensely angry at the loved one for leaving them.
    • Feel as though they need to change for people who seem uncomfortable around them by politely not talking about their feelings of loss.
    • Need to tell and retell and remember things about the loved one and the experience of his or her death.
    • Cry at unexpected times.

All of these are natural and normal grief responses. It is important to cry and talk with people when you need to. By learning about the process of grief and learning also to express your feelings about the experience, you are helping yourself to arrive at a healthy readjustment of your life and a reinvestment of your emotional energy.