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Myths Related To Grieving A Parent

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It can be 20 days or 20 years since your parent(s) has died and still there is a painful nostalgia that accompanies thoughts and reflections on our lives when our parent(s) was alive. Whether you perceived your parent as a loving parent or an unloving parent, this remains true.

In one way or another we register the uniqueness of our relationship with our parents until we, ourselves, come face to face with our own mortality. No one will ever know you or love you as unconditionally as your parent(s) has loved you; on the other hand, if you had a parent that was not loving the potential effect of that unloving parent can have profound and long lasting ramifications throughout your life. The relationship between parent and child is an irreplaceable connection and has lifelong implications that impact the grieving process.

Many myths are associated with grieving a parent. In hopes of alleviating some of the mystery and the pain around grieving the loss of a parent, noting the following myths might help release you from preconceived notions of how grieving a parent “should” look.

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MYTH: Grieving the loss of a parent is the same as grieving other losses. All losses are the same.

TRUTH: Grieving the loss of a parent is a unique loss. Most parents have loved you “unconditionally,” have given you a “ blueprint for life, and the relationship between you two is the relationship upon which all others will be built. When our parent dies we lose our cushion between death and our own mortality. If both parents have died we are literally orphans. A parent is irreplaceable.

MYTH: All adult children grieve the same way.

TRUTH: Each child grieves differently. Each child has his individual timeline for grieving and each child grieves differently than his or her surviving parent or siblings.

MYTH: Once you grieve your parent the pain will go away and will not appear again.

TRUTH: The pain of losing a parent never goes away. Grief comes in waves and even when we have grieved and accepted the death of our parent the waves can be triggered by some stimulus that will jar our memory about “how it used to be.” The difference between early grief and waves of grief that come later in your journey is the difference in how long that pain lasts and how frequently it occurs and how intense the pain is. That is what changes as you heal the wound.

MYTH: The effect of losing a parent is negligible because it is the “natural course of events”.

TRUTH: Because a parent most often dies before their offspring does not make their death any easier. Losing a parent is a traumatic event. We never get over the loss… we get through the loss by learning to become our own parent and an adult. The process of grieving a parent is difficult to do alone.

MYTH: You can find ways to avoid your pain after your parent dies and still resolve your loss successfully. Staying busy will keep the pain away.

TRUTH: When you try to avoid your sadness and loss by immersing yourself in all of your resources such as friends, work, or a calendar that is filled everyday, eventually your grief will not be denied… it will catch up with you and you will have to face your demons.

MYTH: There are stages of grieving a parent.

TRUTH: The stages of grief are not stages at all, but rather, grief is a process. There is not a chronological order of stages to the process of grieving as was suggested by Elizabeth Kubler Ross’ book Death and Dying; more or less we move forward and back and in and out of our grief. At some point, hopefully, we find acceptance and can resume a productive and happy life.

MYTH: It is best for the adult child to remove the belongings of the parent who has died.

TRUTH: There is no right or wrong time to remove belongings of a parent who dies. It is up to each individual to decide what feels comfortable to them. Just remember that belongings of the deceased parent often touch our grief and helps us to grieve and to heal.

MYTH: If you have a surviving parent it is best that you make decisions for that parent since the frailty of the surviving parent becomes a stark reality.

TRUTH: If at all possible it is best not to make decisions for your parent. Roles change when a parent dies and it is quite natural for your surviving parent to feel confused and powerless. There is a great temptation to intervene in decisions, especially when the fragility of a surviving parent becomes a stark reality. It is best to resist this temptation as such action only undermines an already existing sense of powerlessness. Consult with your surviving parent and let them know you are available to help.

MYTH: Grieving the loss of an “unloving parent” is the same as grieving the loss of a “loving parent”.

TRUTH: In actuality, the grieving process is quite different in children who have had an “unloving” parent. They often have ambivalent feelings and wonder why they are feeling so sad and distraught but also angry. The age of the child, the nature of the family unit before the death of a parent and the attachment to that parent has much to do with how an adult child grieves a parent. An adult child grieving a perceived unloving parent is often feeling rage and confusion, and may be suffering post traumatic stress from lifelong trauma. Often before the grieving process can even begin, these feelings need to be addressed in therapy.

It is in the best interest of a grieving adult child to be aware of the myths about grieving a parent that has died. Hopefully, this writing will help those who feel confused to feel less so. Grieving a parent is a process that involves confronting one’s own mortality and developing one’s own life script; it is also an opportunity to become an adult, as we are never really “grown-up” until our parents die. The death of a parent presents the opportunity to gain a great amount of personal insight regarding who you are and who you will become.

By Sue Rowen, M.A., LMFT