Most of us go through life expecting our parents to die someday. After all, we’ve known since we were children that people grow old and die. This is nature’s way.
Still, we’re never really ready to say goodbye to people who play such an important role in our lives. Our parents bring us into the world, nurture us through childhood, guide and support us as we grow, and perhaps remain our principal advisors well into our adult years.
If your parent has died, it’s only natural for you to feel consumed by a combination of pain, fear and deep sadness. You are experiencing grief, the difficult but necessary process that allows us to say goodbye. Grieving is how we begin to untangle the emotional bonds formed with someone who was very special to us.
Grief is as individual as it is natural. How you grieve depends on a number of factors. Your relationship with your parent strongly influences the grief you feel, but so does your age, sex, previous experience with death and religious beliefs. Your parent’s age and whether or not you believe it was “time” for death will affect your grief. If your parent died suddenly, you may grieve more intensely than if death came at the end of a long illness that allowed you to prepare yourself for your loss. In short, no one can tell you how you will or should experience grief.
They are, however, common reactions to the death of a loved one, and you should expect to experience some of them. You may experience shock. If your parent falls victim to a sudden illness or accident, you may even deny at first that he or she has died. Almost without intention, you may blurt out, “No, they made a mistake. My parent is okay.”
Later, the initial shock may dissolve into numbness. You may feel that none of what is happening is real – as if you are just watching a movie. This does not mean there’s something wrong with you. Shock is nature’s way of insulating you, of giving you time to slowly accept what has happened.
As the reality of death sinks in, you may become filled with anger. You may feel angry at the doctors or nurses who couldn’t save your parent, at the funeral director and at God. If you believe your parent’s death was caused by poor health habits or carelessness, you may even feel angry at him or her for dying and leaving you – and then feel guilty for this anger.
In fact, you may feel guilty for a number of reasons. You may believe you somehow should have prevented the death. “I should have insisted she see a doctor sooner,” you may say to yourself, or “I should have been there to prevent that accident.”
Even the closest parents and children disagree sometimes, and you may feel guilty for those arguments. Minor events that wouldn’t normally deserve a second thought can become stinging memories in the face of death. Perhaps just before she died, your mother asked you over for dinner and you were too busy to accept. While she may not have been at all hurt, in your mind you denied her last request.
It’s common to become preoccupied with the parent who died. You may think about him or her constantly, recreate the circumstances of the death over and over in your mind, have dreams or nightmares about him or her – you may even think you see or hear him or her. Many people are surprised and frightened by the intensity of these reactions. Grieving people often wonder if they are losing their minds. It’s important to realize that, as bizarre as they may seem, these reactions are normal.
The mental strain of grief can take a physical toll as well. It’s not unusual for the bereaved to lose weight, have difficulty sleeping, become irritable or listless or feel shortness of breath. Grief has even been known to cause hair loss.
As the initial shock of the death fades, it’s common for bereaved children to slip into depression or to feel panicky. When a parent dies, you eventually experience “secondary losses.” You haven’t just lost a parent, but also an advisor, a role model, a friend. It’s not unusual for adult children to still seek a parent’s advice before they make large purchases or investments – after all, they have years of experience to draw upon – perhaps your parent was your counselor on child-rearing, relationships, cooking and health. For you and your siblings, the family home was probably the natural place for your reunions. Without your parent there to fulfill all these roles, you may suddenly feel alone.
Even if you were quite independent from your parents, you may still experience some kinds of secondary losses. If you are in your 20s or 30s, you may have hoped to someday make your parents proud of your career accomplishments. Now the parent who has died won’t see you fulfill those goals. You may also regret that your parent won’t see your own children grow up.
If you are older, the death of a parent removes a psychological buffer between you and your own mortality. As your generation becomes the oldest in your family, you may be nagged with the feeling of “I’m next.”
If you have children of your own, you face the difficult task of telling them that their grandparent has died. Depending on his or her age, a child may ask all kinds of questions. Keep your answers as simple and honest as possible. Don’t tell a child that Grandma is “sleeping”; the child may be afraid to ever go to sleep again. Don’t tell a child that Grandpa is up in heaven watching over her; while you may find this image comforting, your child may be terrified that Grandpa has become an ever-present spy.
Remember, your children need to resolve their own grief. They will take their cues from you, so give them permission to grieve by letting them see your own grief. Don’t try to “protect” them from the grieving process; and by all means, take them to the funeral unless they don’t want to go. They don’t need to understand for it to be beneficial to them. Keeping them home from the funeral may make them feel rejected.
If you normally have a pressing schedule, try to lighten it. Remember, grief is mentally taxing; you don’t need the added strain of too much to do. Set aside some quiet times just for yourself so you can think about your parent’s death and put things in perspective.
If your other parent is still alive, talk with him or her and share your memories. Sooner or later, you’ll find yourselves laughing about the good times as well as grieving for your loss. Gently suggest that your surviving parent not make any major decisions for several months. A grieving widow or widower may sell the house or give away belongings, only to regret those actions later.
What if you can’t seem to handle your grief? There is no timetable for grief, so it’s difficult to say when a person needs professional help. If you are worried that you aren’t handling your grief, you might consider talking to a counselor. You may be relieved to discover that you are reacting normally.
If you believe you need help, ask your funeral director, clergyperson or doctor to suggest a counselor.