When a parent passes away, it can feel like your life has never stopped.
You reached adulthood, but still needed your parents for a long time.
Even if their death was expected, the loss of their support, guidance, and love can leave a huge emptiness and pain that can be hard to heal.
Maybe you and your parent had a complicated relationship that resulted in a roller coaster of conflicting emotions.
The world at large expects you to recover from your grief quickly, and get back to work, after 3 days of bereavement leave.
There’s no right or wrong way to grieve the loss of a parent, but these strategies can offer a starting place as you begin to acknowledge your loss.
Sadness is common after the loss of a parent, but it’s also normal for other feelings to take over. You may not feel sad, and that’s OK, too. Perhaps you only feel numb, or relieved they’re no longer in pain.
Grief opens the gate to a flood of complicated, often conflicting emotions. Your relationship with your parent might have had plenty of challenges, but it still represented an important key to your identity.
They created you, or adopted you, and raised you to be the first anchor in the world.
It is only natural to experience difficulties coming to terms with your loss.
You might experience something.
- anger or frustration
- guilt for not being present for their death
- emotional and shock numbness
- A sense of unreality is a confused or disbelief.
- It is either hopelessness or despair.
- Physical pain.
- mental health symptoms, including depression or thoughts of suicide
- Relief that they are no longer in pain.
“Even if you don’t agree with what others think you should feel, your feelings are valid.”
People react to grief in different ways, but it’s important to let yourself feel all of your feelings.
There is no one right way to grieve, no set amount of time after which you can expect to feel better, no stages or steps to check off a list, and no one right way to grieve. It can be difficult to accept.
Denying your feelings may seem like a route toward faster healing. You might also get the message that others expect you to bury your grief and move on before you’ve come to terms with your loss.
“It is difficult to remember that grief is a painful process. Don’t let the opinions of others sway you.”
Some people work through grief in a short time and move forward with their lives. No matter how expected the death was, others need more time and support.
If your parent died after a long illness, you have less time to prepare, but no less grief. If you held out hope for their recovery to the very end, you might still feel stunned.
The unexpected death of a parent still in middle age, on the other hand, may force you to confront your own mortality, a battle that can also complicate grief.
You may experience a variety of emotions and feelings as you navigate the days, weeks and months following the loss of a parent. Over time, these may change as well.
Some people may go through what is referred to as the five stages of grief. These include:
- Stage one: denial. This can feel like being in a state of shock or confusion surrounding the death of a parent. A person in this stage may feel the need to keep busy all the time, or do what they can to avoid dealing with the issue.
- Stage two: anger. A person in this stage may feel frustration, rage or even resentment. They may display behaviors that are irritable, sarcastic or pessimistic. They may also get into arguments or turn to alcohol or drugs.
- Stage three: bargaining. A person in the bargaining phase of grief may have feelings of shame, guilt, blame or insecurity. They may ruminate on matters of the past or worry about the future. They may judge themselves or others, overthink and worry.
- Stage four: depression. During this stage, people may feel hopeless, sad, disappointed and overwhelmed. They may experience changes to their sleep or appetite, have a lack of interest in social activities and have reduced energy.
- Stage five: acceptance. People in the final stage of grief may feel a sense of self-compassion, courage, pride and even wisdom. They may accept reality for what it is, be present in the moment as it happens and be able to adapt and cope with the situation.
The impact of grief is significant.
- Your state of mind could change quickly.
- You might notice sleep problems, more or less of an appetite, irritability, poor concentration, or increased alcohol or substance use.
- It can be difficult to work, take care of household tasks, or see to your own basic needs.
- The need to wrap up your parent’s affairs may leave you overwhelmed, particularly if you have to handle this task alone.
Some people find comfort in the distraction of work, but try to avoid returning before they feel ready. People often take on more than they can handle to avoid the wall of pain that comes with work.
Finding a balance is important. If you still have time to address your feelings, distraction can be healthy.
It might seem difficult, even inconsiderate, to dedicate time to self-care, but prioritizing your health becomes even more important as you recover from your loss.
Keep these tips in mind.
- Get enough sleep. Set aside 7 to 9 hours each night for sleep.
- Avoid skipping meals. If you don’t feel hungry, choose nutritious snacks and small meals of mood-boosting foods.
- Hydrate. Drink plenty of water.
- Keep moving. Stay active to energize yourself and help raise your spirits. Even a daily walk can help.
- Aim for moderation. If you drink alcohol, try to stay within recommended guidelines. It’s understandable to want to numb your pain, but increased alcohol use can have health consequences.
- Reset. Rest and recharge with fulfilling hobbies, such as gardening, reading, art, or music.
- Be mindful. Meditating or keeping a grief journal can help you process emotions.
- Speak up. Talk to your healthcare provider about any new physical or mental health symptoms. Reach out to friends and other loved ones for support.
Sharing stories and talking to family and friends about your parent can help keep their memory alive.
If you have children, you might tell stories about your grandparents or traditions that were important to you.
It might feel painful at first, but you may find that your grief begins to ease as the stories start flowing.
“If you can’t talk about your parent for the moment, it can be helpful to collect photographs of special times or write a letter expressing your grief.”
Not everyone has positive memories of their parents, of course. And people often avoid sharing negative memories about people who’ve passed. If they abused, neglected, or hurt you in any way, you may wonder whether there’s any point to dredging up that old pain.
“If you have never discussed or processed what happened, it might be harder to heal and move forward after their death. It’s possible to lighten the load by opening up to a therapist.”
Specific actions can help honor a deceased parent and offer some comfort.
You might think about it.
- A small memorial with photos and memories.
- They will be planting their favorite tree or flower in your backyard.
- They are adopting a pet or plants.
- They found volunteering or other community service meaningful.
- They can donate to their favorite charity.
Upon hearing the news that an estranged parent has passed away, you might feel lost, numb, angry, or surprised by your grief. You might even feel cheated of the opportunity to address past trauma or unresolved hurt.
“Life doesn’t always give us the answers we want. Sometimes you have to accept incomplete conclusions, even if they are painful.”
If you know you can no longer address the past, you might feel like you are doomed to carry that hurt forever.
Instead of clutching tight to any lingering bitterness, try viewing this as an opportunity to let go of the past and move forward — for your sake.
Some things are truly difficult to forgive, but harboring resentment only harms you, since there’s no one left to receive it.
A letter can help you express your feelings and begin the process of processing the feelings left after death. Working with a therapist can help you heal the pain of the past.
If you have lost a friend or loved one, they can still help you feel less alone.
“It is normal to need time to mourn privately, but isolating yourself doesn’t help The support of those closest to you can help you deal with your loss.”
Beyond providing a supportive presence, friends can also help out with meals, child care, or handling errands.
Let others know what you need.
If you want to talk about your parent, you might ask if they can listen. If you want to take a break from thinking about their death, you can ask them to join you in a distraction activity, such as playing a game, watching a movie, or working on a project.
After your parent dies, family relationships can change.
If your parent is still alive, you and your siblings may be able to provide support. If you have any siblings, they are facing the same loss. Their relationship with your parent can mean different things to different people.
It is not unusual for siblings to have disagreements over end-of-life care.
Family bonds can be comforting during grief. You have experienced the same loss, even though it is different to each of you.
If you want to keep your family bonds strong, you should strengthen them.
This might mean reaching out more often or inviting them more frequently to visit and participate in family gatherings.
It can also mean listening with empathy when a sibling who had a difficult relationship with your parent now finds it hard to come to terms with their conflicting emotions.
“A grief support group can fulfill a different kind of social need by connecting you to others who have experienced similar losses, even if you’re not a grief support group member.”
“People who haven’t experienced loss attempt to console you or express concern, which can make you feel frustrated.”
“They don’t understand what you’re going through, no matter how kind or well intentioned their words are.”
In a support group, you can find a shared understanding, along with validation of the emotions you feel unable to express to anyone else.
“You need extra support as you begin to process your parent’s death. Many counselors provide grief support.”
As you begin to work through the emotions that accompany grief, a therapist can offer guidance. As you begin adjusting to life without your parent, grief counselors can teach you how to cope.
Therapy also offers a safe space to unpack any guilt, anger, resentment, or other lingering emotions around a deceased parent’s toxic or hurtful behavior, and to achieve some level of closure.
If you want to forgive your parent but are unsure how to do so, a therapist can help.
It can take time for grief to be understood.
Everyone will experience grief differently. Some people may take longer than others to grieve the loss of a loved one.
Feelings of grief may come and go, with the intensity of grief going up and down at different times. It can be hard to feel like you have made any progress with your grief.
It is possible that you may feel better for a while, but then you feel grief again. This is normal.
Some people may find grief is worse around the holidays or other significant dates.
It is possible to feel connected to a person who has died for years even though the pain associated with grief may diminish over time.
You can grieve after a parent dies, no matter what kind of relationship you had.
It is a normal process that looks different for everyone. You should treat yourself with kindness and compassion, as you take time to grieve.
Crystal Raypole worked as an editor for GoodTherapy. Her interests include Asian languages and literature, Japanese translation, cooking, natural sciences, sex positivity, and mental health. She is committed to helping decrease stigma around mental health issues.