Coping with the Loss of a Parent

Loss of a parentAfter the loss of a parent, especially one who may have lived to a more advanced age, there often follows predictable attempts at comfort: “He lived a good life” or “It’s the natural order of things” or, “You were lucky to have him for so long”.

I was guilty of this. In my early days of making phone calls as a bereavement coordinator, I’ll admit to creating expectations of how the griever on the other end of the phone would respond, based on the age of the person they lost. I’ll never forget calling the daughter of a woman who had just lost her mom on Hospice. Mom had been 101 at the time of her passing. 101! Meaning the daughter had to be in her 70’s or 80’s. This was a “child” who had very possibly lost her father, friends and peers, or even her own spouse. Perhaps she had her own health issues that were serious enough to have her concerned about her own life and mortality. Surely this woman, of all the calls I would make that day, would be the person who would say, “we’re doing okay. Mom was 101, we’re just glad we had her so long”.

But, boy, was I wrong. What I expected to be a quick call turned into a long call, that lead to a visit, which lead to this woman coming to our groups to  talk about the very painful loss of her mom. “It sounds crazy, but she lived such a long time I just assumed she’d be around forever” she told me that day. And I quickly realized that at her own “advanced” age of 79, this daughter was going to need to relearn her life and what it was going to be like to not have her mother in it.

So never again. Never again have I made an assumption about how a person should respond when a loved one has died, and never again would I assume that any part of grief or loss can be easy.

I’ve facilitated a group for those facing the loss of a parent (or both parents) for several years. And one thing I find that most every person who attends has in common?

A total and complete lack of understanding from those around them.

Our parents are “supposed” to go first. If using the “natural order or things” argument, then a parent dying before their child is what’s supposed to happen. But does that make it any less painful? That seems to be an assumption. When something is “supposed” to happen that we’re somehow better equipped to handle it. But so many other painful things happen in life that are “supposed” to: children growing and moving from our homes, beloved pets living for so fewer years then we’d want them to, even the sale of a home or leaving a career when we’re “supposed” to…

These all represent significant life loss and life change, for which most will find a network willing to talk and listen about the challenges related to each. And yet I’ve seen so many people struggle to find support and understanding when facing the loss of a parent, and it only serves to amplify the grief and isolation they feel.

Besides the rather obvious fact of simply missing having a very important person in our life, here are some issues faced by a child (because yes, I believe as long as we have a parent in our lives, there is someone who still considers us their child, but more on that in a minute…) who has lost a parent:

  1. Loss of ourselves – for better or worse, there are few people who know us better than our parents. Or at least know us from our earliest days – who have seen us through every high and low. No matter how accomplished we are today, or how far we feel we’ve come from who we once were, our parents were the witnesses to all of it. And if we were lucky, they were also our cheerleaders, our comfort, and the ones who would have taken us back if it all went wrong.
  2. Loss of unconditional love – I have a friend who is happily married. Every year she goes on vacation with her husband, children, and her parents. She confided that she looks forward to this time, especially because of the time she gets with her mother. My friend went on to say that she sometimes feels her mom is the only one who understands and anticipates what she needs and when she needs it. And despite her truly happy marriage, she knows the love her mom has for her is different than the love she shares with her spouse. And we agreed, plain and simple, there is an unconditional love between parents and children that can not be matched or compared to any other relationship. We agreed that we feel it for our own children, and it makes us understand better how our parents  feel about us. And the loss of that, the loss of that person who loves us no matter what, can leave a greater void than we could ever anticipate.
  3. Loss of a generation – our parents represent a time in history. As much as we may have rolled our eyes at their music or movie choices, there is a cozy warmth in the things associated with our parents’ generation. Besides history or pop culture, there is everything else that goes with it…their friends, our aunt and uncles. Each loss can feel like a disconnection to their past, and to ours. For many as they move forward and further away from all that felt so familiar they may find themselves in a world that they don’t always feel they belong in.
  4. Reality of our own mortality or of “being next” – while we probably spent the better part of our youth wanting to be older, it doesn’t take long to realize that being older and getting older are two very different things. In our early years being older means more responsibility and perhaps others to care for, but getting older can turn our concern inward. We will feel ourselves slow down and face our own health issues. But nothing will make us look at our own time on this Earth more closely than the illness and eventual loss of a parent. There is a comfort in knowing the generation above us is there to keep an eye on things, and the loss of that can be unsettling.
  5. Loss of one parent, care & responsbility of remaining parent – here is something I see happen all the time. A son or daughter taking care of their parent, in some form or another, for weeks, months or years at a time. When their parent dies, there is very little time to mourn. Because suddenly all of that care, energy and attention shifts immediately to the parent who remains. Can they live alone? Who will they eat dinner with? Are they safe? No matter how frail or dependent our parents together may have been, there is a security in knowing that at least- they were together. With one parent gone and one remaining, there may be little time to think about the parent who was lost. Which brings us to…
  6. Loss of both parents – so following this line of thinking above, what most often seems to happen is that the loss of the remaining parent means finally, the “child” can grieve them both. This will likely be a surprise, as the griever thinks, “oh my gosh, Mom died 10 years ago, why am I suddenly grieving so much more?”. For many of us, our parents are a package deal, and thoughts of one, and sadness for one will so often be linked to the other. With both parents gone, the final question is: am I a “child” anymore? Without a father or mother am I a son or a daughter? Of all the roles we play in life, the role of child was our longest- the one that was most familiar, and perhaps the one we took most for granted. Long before we were a spouse, an aunt, uncle, mother, father, or grandparent…we were someone’s child. Even if we have long separated ourselves from needing the security that feeling can bring, isn’t it to be expected that a fundamental shift in our identity is experienced whether we are aware of it or not?

So for anyone familiar, you may see that I do this a lot- present you with the idea of “why” as in, “why is this so hard?”. And the idea is not to point out things that make it harder or sadder, but instead to help organize or even label the bad feelings we know we experience. In grief, we are all well aware of just how much we’re struggling, and though the “why” we feel sad is easily answered, the “why” we will struggle long after we feel we “should”, is not.

The hope is that by understanding all that we’ve truly lost with the loss of a parent or parents, we can become more patient with ourselves. If we can find the reason and the words, and perhaps if we can outline better for ourselves the depth and complexities of these losses we can educate those around us who express or suggest that we should be handling ourselves in a different way.

Sit with the loss. Understand why it hurts, and why it matters, and let the magnitude of the loss better dictate the timeline it takes for you to heal. Don’t rush through it. While painful, let the memories and the lifetime shared with your first loves have a place in your heart always. Let their unconditional love guide you and let this loss matter. Because at one point in your life they were everything, and they mattered.

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At www.griefincommon.com we recognize just how complicated the loss of a parent can be. While some parts of this writing may represent a more idealized version of the parent/child relationship, we do recognize that not everyone has had the same experience or feelings for their parents. With that in mind, I suggest reading our blog on “Grieving the Relationship that Never Was” for a more detailed discussion on grieving the more complicated bonds in our life.

Remember that whether it’s the loss of one parent, or both parents , ideal or not so ideal relationship…there are people here who understand. Find support here, pay tribute, or search for those you can connect with today. 

 

 

 

 

 

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6 thoughts on “Coping with the Loss of a Parent”

  1. Thank you for writing this…I lost my father in February 2016, my mother in April 2016 and my brother in October 2016. I feel the loss of my beloved parents every day of my life. I was very close to my father all of my life, grew closer to him when my mother developed Alzheimer’s disease. When my father died, I was devastated. And suddenly, I had to get myself together because my mother needed me. And then, she died. As time moves on, I feel a great sense of loss with losing my parents so close together. I believe that my brother died because he just couldn’t come to grips that our parents were gone and so, despite the fact that he had health issues, he just gave up.

    There isn’t a day that goes by that I don’t think of my beloved parents. I miss them terribly, but in my heart, I know that I have to go on with my life and build a new life for myself. Building a new life for myself is what hurts the most…I just want to sit in my chair in my bedroom and cry…

    I know that we all grieve differently. I’m just not sure that I am grieving at all. I have no energy to do much of anything. I go to work, come home, go to sleep and do the same thing day after day. Some days, I am so tired, but I keep going.

    Will life get brighter and easier?

    1. Yes, life will get brighter & easier but you have suffered multiple losses in a short period of time. This complicates your grief. You need to take care of yourself; eat well, exercise, get regular sleep; maybe see your doctor if it helps. Sounds to me you could use a break from your job; some “me” time to relax & begin to process your losses. You have A LOT to work through. I agree, personal grief counseling may be very beneficial for you too.

  2. What a massive amount you have on your shoulders, I can really feel from your message how painful this is for you.
    Have you considered personal grief counselling?
    Lots of caring thoughts.
    Caroline

  3. grieving is very hard for anyone because it can destroy a part of your self you can’t regain. People can help you to a certain extend and grief counselling may help but you usually get answers people think you want to hear in their feeble attempt to help. I lost my mother recently due to a progressive illness of respiratory distress due to copd, pneumonia ,afib and multiple complications. She was on life support and I had to make decision to end her life a thing nobody wants to ever have to do., She could not walk,eat,talk or breath on her own and there was no hope. I took care of her for most of my life. she had mental health issues at well. I took her to doctors all the time and thought she would live longer could not imagine this kind of suffering. I am not married, no children just her. I have other family and that helps but they can’t really understand my pain. I can’t process this I keep going over hospital visits in my mind and seeing her die. I am trying to move on but, I can’t very well. I go out very seldom and I cry everyday I keep trying to figure out stuff, why it happened and I can’t figure it out why did god do this?
    I do believe you should be patient with people offering support because the fact that they are there mean they care. One more thing always have love ones do a end of life living will so you won”t have that entirely on your shoulders when and if the case presents itself which I hope never does to anyone.

  4. My mom died 20 days after my dad, and as hard as that was, I took some small measure of comfort in the fact that mom and dad were together. I just couldn’t imagine having 1 without the other. But it was, and continues to be the hardest thing I’ve ever had to deal with. It all happened so fast that it left me feeling. Even now I have this sense of “did that actually happen?” There seems to be a real sense of surrealism about everything that happened in that time frame. One minute I’m sitting beside my dad’s hospital bed watching him breathe his last breaths, the next thing I know I’m doing the same thing for mom.

    Worse yet was when we had to sell my childhood home. It was a place I had known for over 31 years. It was the first house my parents had bought and they lived there till they died. It was my home base, the place I knew so well. I can still close my eyes and see it exactly as it was.

    All this happened 3 years ago and even now I have a hard time seeing photos of my parents. Not sure it will ever get easier but I just take things 1 day at a time.

  5. Mom died December 17th 2014. My brother and I were in our mid twenties. Dad had been married to her since they were 19, met when they were 15.
    Since mom died everything has changed. Dad is miserable, trying to flirt with 20 year olds to make him feel better. I honestly think that he really doesn’t know what to do with himself.
    Mom was 100% the glue that held us together and now that she’s gone we are falling apart.

    I really hope that someone can relate and share

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