Helping a Grieving Parent
It’s never easy to console someone whose spouse has died. But it can be especially challenging when the deceased is your mother or father, and you are trying to support that remaining parent. After all, this person has supported and comforted YOU through life, so it all feels so unnatural.
How can you comfort your surviving parent while dealing with your own loss? It may help you to remember that every person experiences grief differently. You should never assume that you know how that parent feels, for losing a spouse is very different to losing a parent.
Try to be understanding and patient. You can help by:
- Attending to their physical needs
- Listening to them, encouraging them to talk about their spouse
- Making sure they get the care they need.
- Patiently allowing them to express grief
- Remembering and acknowledging important dates and anniversaries
It’s not always easy to do these things, however. And because you also have to deal with your own loss, you may be frustrated as you try to help this parent move on with life. As part of grieving, they may experience depression, forgetfulness, disorganization, preoccupation with the loss and a lack of interest or motivation in activities that they used to enjoy. Grief can be a jumble of contradictory emotions: anger, longing, relief, guilt, regret, depression, panic and even hysteria. These uncharacteristic behaviours, though a normal part of grief and grieving, can be worrying and distressing.
Or maybe you’re having trouble letting go, and you resent the fact that you father has given away your mother’s clothes. In either case, tensions may be driving you apart, at a time when support is most needed.
In addition to support and time to mourn, both you and your surviving parent need plenty of rest, nutritious meals and exercise. Try to make sure you both get these things. Staying healthy will help your body handle the stress these emotions can cause.
Point to Ponder 1
In time, grief will diminish, although it sometimes takes a year or longer. Despite what people may think, you don’t get over a significant relationship in a few months. That is not a sign of inability to cope; it is a sign of how significant the relationship was.
One of the best gifts you can give that is patience and understanding, long past the time when the outside world has stopped sending cards or asking her how she’s doing.
Point to Ponder 2
Sometimes grief is delayed. Your deceased parent may have suffered a long illness, requiring their partner’s constant care and attention. Initially, they may remain caught up in taking care of the details after the death, or may deny that they are grieving (because the death was expected). Many feel they did all their grieving during the illness, and take a break from the pain for a while. They may seem fine for weeks or even months. But you should be prepared for the grief to surface at some point.
Some days, your parent may seem almost like their old self. But then they may hear a song, find a note written by their loved one or pass a favorite restaurant, and fall back in the throes of grief. These aren’t setbacks – they’re just typical ways that the grieving process resurfaces
Point to Ponder 3
Grief is stressful, and stress impairs the immune system. Grieving people may have more colds, suffer lingering illnesses or have flare-ups of existing conditions. You might suggest that your parent make an appointment with their physician so he/she can keep a check on their health. Make sure the doctor knows about theer bereavement.
Understanding Your Parent’s Grief
A grieving person can’t function at 100 percent, so the initial months after you’re a spouse’s death aren’t a time for the survivor to start new projects or make major decisions. His normal functions will return, even though you may find him doing abnormal things. Such behavior isn’t surprising: He’s grieving. Signs of grief may include:
Your usually organized parent may miss appointments, lock their keys in the car or mail unsigned checks with the bills. You can help them by being patient, reminding him that these are symptoms of grief and suggesting that they write down reminders to themselves.
The person may find that it takes a lot longer to finish everyday tasks, and not manage time well – leaving one project unfinished and going on to something else. You might help with planning a schedule, or offer to work with them on something. Spending time together and focusing on something other than the grief can bring you closer together, as well as ease their sense of isolation and loneliness.
- Inability to concentrate.
During the early stages of bereavement, the mind wanders. A newly widowed person may find it impossible to stay focused. It may be difficult to read a book or even to stick with a TV show. Reading a newspaper may take longer than before, and retaining information may be difficult. You can help by highlighting important points, or even reading aloud to them. Bereaved people can be dangerous on the highways due to their inability to concentrate. They’re also susceptible to unexpected crying spells. Warn your parent to be extra careful when driving or handling potentially dangerous equipment, such as a lawn mower, snow blower, or even a garbage disposal in a sink.
- Lack of interest or motivation.
Your father might say: “Why work so hard? We just die anyway” or “I was doing all this for your mother, and now she’s dead. Why bother?” Let them express these feelings, and offer unconditional love and support. But if you worry that the person might actually hurt themselves, or if you notice him dealing with his sadness by using alcohol or drugs, talk to them or to their physician immediately.
Grief is physically exhausting. You can help by making sure the person eats regular, nourishing meals. If it’s too difficult to eat three regular meals each day, suggest that they try four or five small ones. Help them her get regular exercise. If you live nearby, visit in the evenings for walks around the neighborhood after dinner. Or, if you’re far away, ask one of her friends or neighbors to walk with them. People like to “do” something to help and this may be a practical opportunity.
The parent may be having problems sleeping, so help them think about developing regular bedtime routines. Ask family and friends not to call them after her designated bedtime, yet to be available should they need to talk. If sleeping problems persist, discuss it with a doctor.
You may find your parent is more likely to snap at you or others. Minor issues may spark major arguments. Be understanding and patient; remember that they probably are not really angry with you, just angry that their spouse has died. If they are receptive, you might look for a support group for people who have lost spouses. If they belong to a religious or community organization, encourage them to attend services or meetings and to stay in contact with fellow members.
The mourning period
The length of the mourning period will be influenced by your parent’s personality, their feelings about their spouse, and even the cause of death. If the person died unexpectedly, the survivor probably didn’t have a chance to say goodbye and may now have to look for a symbolic way to do so. You might suggest that they write a letter to the deceased and read to them at the burial site.
And no matter how well this parent has dealt with grief, emotions often resurface at holidays, birthdays and anniversaries. It’s important to acknowledge and share this emotion. For example, let your parent know you remember their wedding anniversary and ask if you can do something special for her, such as taking her out for dinner. But be understanding if they don’t want to do anything or just wants to stay home.
Taking Care of Yourself
A lot of responsibilities are thrust upon adult children whose parents die. They may be expected to make funeral arrangements, do all the paperwork as well as possibly caring for surviving parents.
However, it’s important that you take time for your own grief. You might want to join a support group. You should also let your friends and other family members know what your needs are: Do you need to talk? Blow off steam about your surviving parent?
As you watch out for your parent, don’t forget your own daily health routines. You should eat well, exercise and get plenty of sleep. And make sure your doctor knows what’s happened so he/she can help monitor your health if necessary. Finally, remember that in addition to your grief, you may also be facing feelings about your own aging and death. The death of a parent brings us face to face with our own mortality, and reminds us that we’re no longer children. This adjustment can be difficult.
Express your feelings appropriately, and encourage your parent to do the same. You may both feel better after a good cry – especially if you’ve shared your tears. You might also seek professional guidance. If your emotions are overwhelming, consider seeing a licensed therapist who specializes in grief.
Frequently Asked Questions
My mother died two years ago, but my father refuses to clean out her closet or make any changes in the house. Should I encourage him to start getting rid of some of her things?
Spending time in your mother’s room may have become a comforting ritual for your dad. He may need your encouragement (and even permission) to begin making changes. You might try saying something like, “When you’re ready, I’d be happy to help you clean out Mom’s closet” or “When you’re ready, I’d like to have some of Mom’s jewelry or sweaters.” If your suggestion makes him angry, or if after a year or so they do not want to even talk about these things, it may be good to suggest professional counseling.
Since my dad died last year, it seems that no one wants to talk about him, especially my mother. Whenever I bring up his name or talk about his death, family members leave the room or change the subject. I need to talk about him. What should I do?
Talking about your father’s death may not be the place to start – instead, try talking about memories casually. For example: “Remember when we went on our family vacation and Dad fell into the swimming pool?” Or get out a box of family photos and go through them yourself. Your mother might get curious and join you. You might also suggest to your family that perhaps you join a support group together – and if they don’t want to, consider joining one on your own.
My mothere died six months ago and my father’s already dating. I want him to be happy, but I don’t like this woman and I worry she’ll take advantage of him. I feel I owe it to my mother to protect him. What can I do?
It’s possible that the woman your father’s dating is a fine, loving person. However, because it’s only been six months since your mother died, you’re right to wonder if he’s using this relationship to ease his loneliness and grief. He may be trying to “replace” your mother, and she is irreplaceable.
Try to get to know this lady. Remember, your father can make his own decisions. But it’s okay if you suggest that he go slowly in this new relationship, and consider joining a support group, or talking it over with a counselor or clergy.
My parents had been married for 45 years before my mother died of a long illness, and now all Dad can talk about is “joining your mother.” I need my father and don’t want him to die anytime soon. What’s going on with Dad?
It’s common to hear people talk about the time when they’ll be able to join a loved one who’s died. Often it’s a passing comment, yet it should always be taken seriously. Most often they are not saying they want to die, but rather, wondering how they can go on living.
But if you feel your father may be thinking about killing himself, you should act immediately, especially if he’s had periods of depression. Ask him about how serious he is. Encourage him to see a therapist. Many communities have suicide hotlines or mental health centers where you can get immediate advice.
After my father died nine months ago, I helped out constantly, dealt with all the paperwork and spent nights at my mother’s home. Now I have to get on with my own life, but my mother can’t function without me. How can I help her become more independent?
Before your father died, was your mother dependent on him? If so, she may be trying to replace him with you. Some counseling might be in order. If she refuses to go, you could go alone. If she’s always been independent, you might start by asking her about this change. Her increased dependence may simply be a temporary reaction to your father’s death; she may just need more time to get back on her feet.