How to cope with the death of a parent
Although most of us expect our parents to die before us, many adults are surprised by the complexity of our grief when we lose our mother or father. Losing a parent, at any age, can be one of the most significant losses than an individual will encounter.
Losing a parent
The relationship between a parent and a child is undoubtedly one of the strongest human attachments, so it stands to reason that the death of a parent can be a devastating experience.
You may go through the initial numbness and shock of losing them, then cycle through the different feelings and emotions associated with the stages of grief including denial, anger, sadness and despair. The order you experience these feelings, and the intensity and length will be determined by the relationship with your parent, the circumstances of their death and even the support you have around you. Don’t worry if you miss a stage or it feels like it is taking you too long to go through all of them; everyone experiences grief differently.
According to some studies, gender also plays a role in parental loss. The death of a father is likely to have a bigger impact on the son whilst daughters are more affected by the death of their mothers. The age at which you lose a parent is another factor that influences bereavement and affects the grieving person.
Loss of a parent as a child
Experiencing the death of a parent is traumatic at any age, but it’s particularly harrowing for young children.
A child’s understanding will depend on many things, including their age, stage of development, family background, personality and previous experience of death. Children don’t develop at the same rate – they’re all individuals. Children, more so than adults, can also swing quickly between grieving and getting on with their normal lives. They can be upset one minute and asking to play football or have some ice cream the next.
During bereavement, it can help a child to talk about the person who’s died. Direct, honest and open communication is more helpful than trying to protect them by hiding the truth. A child who has lost a parent needs to know that it is acceptable to show emotions about the person who has died but also that it’s okay to move on with life when they’re ready and that they shouldn’t feel guilty about it. Let them know that everyone comes to terms with death in their own way, at their own pace. Some days will be tougher than others, but they’ll eventually be OK.
Childhood grief is persistent and it’s quite possible for it to make an appearance later in life. People who are bereaved as children may revisit their grief at significant milestones such as starting a new school, going to university, starting a job, getting married or having children of their own.
For further information, please refer to our guide on how to help a grieving child.
Loss of a parent in later life
However old you are, the death of a parent can leave you feeling suddenly vulnerable and alone. You may experience quite childlike responses, ironically at a time when you’re likely to be thrust into a very ‘adult’ role (for example, organising a funeral or sorting out financial matters).
You only have one set of parents and you are always going to be the child in that relationship even if you become a parent yourself. If your attachment to your mum or dad was strong and healthy, you may feel untethered, as though you have lost your sense of safety and even identity in the world. If you had a troubled relationship, these feelings may be even more complex as you could find yourself grieving not only the actual parent, but the parent you wish you had known. Their death will have taken away the possibility of reconciliation or improvement in the relationship.
Nothing can prepare you for their death, even if it is after a long illness. The shock of losing them is still very real. In some cases, death after a long illness, particularly if it was causing them pain and discomfort, can provoke feelings of relief. This is a normal reaction in such circumstances, and not something you should feel guilty about.
The loss of a parent is likely to have effects on the wider family. Often a grandparent's death is a child's first experience of significant loss. If you have your own children, you are likely to find yourself having to support them in their grief at a time when you are yourself vulnerable. If you have a spouse, they may be a good source of support but are likely to have had their own relationship with your parent and may be struggling with their own grief.
Siblings, if you have them, maybe the ones who can most closely relate to what you are going through, but will have had their own unique relationship with your parent and potentially a different way of coping. Death often causes shifts in family roles and dynamics and raises the potential for conflict especially where finances and practical matters are involved.
Suggestions for coping with the loss of a parent
Recognise the scope of your loss – Coping with the loss of a parent means learning to live without a person you have known for your whole life who will likely have played an important role if your growth and development. Parents have shared the important moments if your life with you and have been invested in your wellbeing.
Allow yourself to grieve – After the loss of a parent you will feel emotions that may feel intense and unfamiliar. Grief is an individual experience and different people, even from within the same family, will process their grief and express emotion in different ways, at different times.
Give yourself time – Grieving for mum or dad is not a set process and it’s unlikely you will ever fully ‘recover’ from the death of a parent or even be quite the same person again. Many people describe ‘waves’ of intense feelings that recur at unexpected times, sometimes for years after the death. However, most people report that in time the pain eases and they are able to incorporate their new relationship with their deceased parent into their life. They are still your mum or dad, and you are still their child.
Plan for special days when you may need more support – Feelings may be magnified on birthdays, anniversaries, Mother’s Day or Father’s Day. You should think about how you want to honour your parent on these days if you feel comfortable and want to do so. You could create new rituals or support old traditions with other family members or friends.
Pay attention to self-care - The loss of a parent brings exhausting grief and can affect you physically as well as psychologically. Try to look after your diet, exercise, and sleep, and if you can, take part in activities that bring happiness, however fleeting. Enjoying yourself sometimes, and giving yourself a break, is not ‘cheating’ or ‘forgetting’ – it’s building up essential reserves for the days when the grief is especially hard.
Seek extra support, if you feel you need it – If you feel like you are struggling, you may want to seek professional support from a grief counsellor. If you need to talk to someone, do not be afraid to reach out. Use our online GriefChat service to connect to a trained bereavement counsellor.
Supporting a grieving parent
Quite often, the loss of parent will leave your other parent grieving and in need of support. It’s never easy to console someone whose spouse has died, but it can be especially challenging when the deceased is also your parent. It may help you to remember that every person will experience grief differently, and that losing a spouse isn’t the same thing as losing a parent. You shouldn’t assume that you know exactly how your father or mother feels. Try to be understanding and patient.
You may be able to support your parent by:
• Offering to stay with them and help with daily household jobs such as taking care of pets, doing their shopping for them etc.
• If your parent is on medication, you may need to remind them to take it
• Helping them to let other people (friends, family or organisations) know about the death
• Helping with legal admin and paperwork
• Helping to plan the funeral
• Let them know that you are there to listen to them and encourage them to talk about their spouse (your parent)
In addition to support and time to mourn, both you and your surviving parent need plenty of rest, to keep hydrated, nutritious meals, and exercise. Try to make sure you both get these things.
Visit our grief & loss support page if you would like further advice on how to help someone who is grieving or for help with personal grief. You'll also find a list of helpful organisations that may be able to help someone who has suffered a loss.
We also offer grief help and support through GriefChat. It is a free online service which connects you to a specially trained bereavement counsellor. The service is available Monday to Friday, 9am to 9pm.