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My Parent Has Died! What Now?

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Loss!  We have all experienced losing a loved one but losing a parent is a unique loss and one that is often discounted.  Anyone who has had a parent die knows that feeling of profound sadness, the feeling of being overwhelmed, the thoughts of,  “Oh No! What now?”

There is a prevailing attitude in our cultural messages that the death of a parent is a natural course of events and we need to “just get over it!”

Woman grieving

When a parent dies, we find ourselves looking in a mirror that reflects our own potential for life and death.  We are faced with the fact that we are next in line; we no longer have that parent who was a cushion between us and living and dying.

The entire family changes. We find ourselves in a new world full of stressors that affect our relationships with our children, our spouses, our siblings and a surviving parent.

The relationship and loss of a parent is unique in two fundamental ways:

  1. Our parents play the most significant role in creating our life history. This is the foundation for all of our subsequent relationships.
  2. We really remain children until our parents die.  Then we have to find a way to become “our own parent” and redefine ourselves.

Each family member grieves differently and yet, we are often so very disappointed because we have expectations and criteria for what is “right” and what is “wrong.”

Young children grieve differently than teenagers. Teenagers grieve differently than adult children and as an adult child we grieve differently than a surviving parent or our spouse.

The more we know about the differences in grieving the less we will indulge our expectations and as a result family tensions will be greatly minimized.

The following are some of the issues particular to grieving a parent.  Understanding these issues may lead to a better understanding and more realistic expectations regarding family members.

The death of a parent is:

  • A discounted loss. We are socialized to believe that the death of a parent is “expected” and in the “order” that nature meant it to be. The prevailing message is, “Be strong, get on with your life.”
  • The loss of an irreplaceable relationship.  Your parent(s) might have been your cheerleader, your mentor and loved you unconditionally. If that wasn’t your experience, then part of your grief is to deal with the sadness, disappointment, anger, and regret that comes with that loss.
  • An encounter with your mortality.
  • Potential changes in your family roles; you probably now have a new slew of responsibilities and jobs to accomplish.
  • A change in your identity and poses the question: “How do I become my own parent and take charge of my life?”
  • Facing new and different changes and challenges; one such challenge might be your surviving parent having a new romantic relationship.
  • A possible strain on your marriage. There are expectations from both spouses, spoken and unspoken, that will, at times, be impossible to meet.
  • Difficult in terms of parenting your own children. You may find that the relationship with your own children may change because you cannot be as “present” for them in your all- consuming grief.

Here are some tips for managing all the feelings and thoughts that come up when your parent dies:

  • Open up dialogue with your family so that you can check out what other family members are expecting of you. You need to share your expectations with them.
  • Consider what you want your children to see as a “model” for grieving. Your children learn best from what you do — not from words that they hear you say.
  • Create a memorial and a legacy for your deceased parent to hold for yourself and to share with others.
  • Recognize that your parent(s) was human and not perfect. In spite of that, you can love and forgive them. Forgiveness is one of the greatest gifts we can give ourselves and others.
  • Finally, you may need some help with all of the above. It might be a very good idea to seek out a grief group facilitated by a licensed therapist trained in grieving loss.

By Sue Rowen, M.A., MFT