When a Parent Passes

When a parent dies it provokes powerful emotions, no matter our age and whether it was sudden or expected after a long illness. Here are the emotions and situations you will face and how to find healing with them.

A resource during a trying time

Losing a parent to death is one of life’s most difficult passages. It comes to everyone at some point, and we can draw on the experience and wisdom of those who’ve trod this painful path already. The Center for Loss offers some helpful insights into dealing with the trauma that comes with the loss of a parent.

How timing affects grief

When a parent passes from a long illness, especially when they are elderly and you are a middle aged adult, you have more time to emotionally prepare for the loss. This does not mean it is easy. The sense of loss is still powerful. Add to that the work of caring for an ailing parent, the managing of the estate afterward, relationships with siblings and you may feel overwhelmed.

If the loss is sudden you have no preparation in advance and you are wrenched into grief instantaneously. This form of grief is more acute, painful and difficult from which to recover.

Experiencing your own grief

While distinct stages of grief have been studied and identified by psychologists, each person experiences grief in her or his own way, distinguished by the particulars of relationships and circumstances. The Center for Loss identifies four common feelings.

Sadness is expected, but you may be caught off guard by the degree to which you suffer from it. Even if your parent was sick for sometime and you had time to prepare for his or her passing, or even if you were not close to your parent, the depth of sadness may surprise you. If you had already lost one parent and now this is the other, the sense of parental loss is total: though you are an adult, you are technically an adult orphan.

Relief may come if the parent was sick for some time, was suffering, and you and other loved ones have been exhausted by caring for them. Yet you may feel guilt for having that feeling. Or, if there was friction in your parental relationship, you may regret unresolved conflict. You may wish you could take back hurtful words or wish you had expressed love and appreciation to them.

You may feel anger at having to lose that parent, or feel abandoned by the parent, even though it was through death.

You are not alone in this cacophony of emotion. These feelings are very common. Read about how people successfully navigate these rough waters. Get counsel from a pastor or trusted adviser. Don’t go this alone.

Impact on other family members

The death of a parent affects others in your family as well.

A difficult aspect is explaining to your children about the loss of grandma or grandpa. Help them to grasp death and the fears it may stoke within them of losing you as a parent one day, or even their own death. While you are wrestling with your own grief, you must guide them through theirs.

If you have siblings, they walk through the same experience with you, yet each will deal with the loss in his or her own way. Each had their own unique relationship with your mom or dad. You will need to allow latitude for how they process the loss.

Then there is the surviving parent. He or she has lost a spouse, a life partner, an intimate part of them. Even if the relationship wasn’t warm, there is still a powerful vacuum created. Working through that loss is difficult. This is where you and your siblings can step in and help your mom or dad bridge this difficult time. Any family differences over the years should be set aside for now, and hopefully healed later. This is a time to come together. Don’t compound the grief of the surviving parent during this hard time by perpetuating past conflict.

Healing from the loss

The Center for Loss recommends that you be tolerant of your grief. Don’t expect too much of yourself in terms of your ability to manage the powerful emotions and also the demands on you. Allow yourself to grieve and try to peel back your schedule for a time. Don’t try to “tough it out” emotionally, but allow the feelings to come out and be dealt with.

Press into your faith during this time. Search for the long term meaning of this life event and see things in a bigger perspective.

Remember the good things about your mom or dad. Value what they invested into your life raising and nurturing you. Allow the memories to wash over you.

When to seek help

There is no prescribed length of time that grief should run its course. But if you or another loved one seems unable to return to normalcy after an extended time, cannot carry on daily function past what seems like a reasonable time, or if the deep emotional slough has transitioned to depression, seek pastoral or a professional counselor’s help.

Healing from the loss of one of your parents, like the passing of other loved ones, comes with time and allowing the process to run its natural course. You will find strength in the company of other loving, caring family and friends for the difficult road ahead.