Grieving for 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.
As with all kinds of loss, your response is unique to you and is likely to be influenced by many factors including how close you were to your parent, the nature of their death (e.g. whether they died suddenly or following a long illness), and how much support you have around you. You are likely to experience common grief reactions such as shock, anger, intense sadness, guilt and even relief. However, there are a few other effects that are somewhat unique to the loss of a parent and may come as a surprise.
Feeling lonely, lost, orphaned or helpless
However old you are, you are still your parent’s child, and their death 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 (organising a funeral, sorting out financial affairs, etc).
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 had. Their death will have taken away the possibility of reconciliation or improvement in the relationship.
Heightened awareness of own mortality
Many bereaved adult children report a sense of having to face the reality of their own eventual death, perhaps for the first time; there is a sudden realisation along the lines of “He/she died, that means I will too”. Although we all know this fact cognitively, we often don’t really confront it emotionally until we find ourselves ‘next in line’. This can manifest itself in feelings of anxiety and panic.
Effects on the wider family
If you have your own children, you are likely to find yourself having to support them in their grief – often a grandparent’s death is a child’s first experience of significant loss - 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, may be 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.
Things you can do to support yourself through this time:
Choose how you will remember
Grief invites us to remember, not forget. The funeral, a physical memorial or urn, and the photographs, belongings and mementoes you keep are all important ways that you can keep your deceased parent close, if you choose to. Continue to talk about them, and to them if you like. Perhaps write to them. Some people continue to send text messages or write to their parent on social media pages.
Pay attention to self-care
Grief is exhausting 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 joy, 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.
Give yourself time and be prepared for the 'waves'
Grief is not a linear process and it’s unlikely you will ever fully ‘recover’ from the death of a parent or 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 / dad, and you are still their child.
Grief is a natural response when you lose someone that’s important to you. 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.