How to cope with losing a parent
Although we go through life in anticipation of facing the loss of our parents at some point, we are never prepared to deal with it. We hang on to every bit of hope even if we know they don’t have long. When the day comes, the hope turns into shock which numbs our senses and fills the void with sadness, despair, anger and disbelief.
This grief guide helps you to understand the complexity of losing a parent, its effect on those who are left behind and it shows you how to cope with life after that.
Losing a parent
The loss of a parent manifests itself like any other major loss of a loved one. Expect to go through the initial numbness and shock, then cycle through the different feelings and emotions associated with the stages of grief, including denial, anger, sadness and despair. Remember that their order, intensity and length are determined by the relationship with your parent and the circumstances of their death. Don’t be surprised if you miss a stage or if it takes you a while to go through all of them.
Be prepared for long sleepless nights feeling lost and alone as you worry about life without your mother or father playing an active role in it. Coming to terms with that is likely to have an impact on your relationship with other family members. It can also disturb the dynamics at home as everyone else would be affected by it too.
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. Age is another factor which influences bereavement and affects the grieving person.
Loss of a parent as a child
Losing a parent at a young age is a particularly cruel way to get acquainted with grief. Yet, it happens to 111 children every day in the UK alone. The trauma and shock of this stressful experience are likely to wreak havoc in the young person’s mind and to leave a mark for the rest of their life.
In the cases of a strong bond between the deceased parent and child, parental loss can impact the ability to form and maintain future relationships. It can also indicate the end of childhood and force responsibilities which are normally assumed by adults. It’s not uncommon for bereaved children to feel under pressure to “stay strong” for their remaining parent and other siblings or to contribute to the smooth running of the household.
Childhood grief is persistent and it’s quite possible for it to make an appearance later in life, particularly as you begin to comprehend and examine the true scale of your loss. Certain events and milestones can also trigger a fresh wave of grief feelings and memories about your parent.
For further information, please refer to our guide on explaining death to children.
Loss of a parent in later life
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. You can count on them to help out with the house renovations or to tell you off when you are in the wrong. They are the one constant in your life which is an unconditional part of it.
Then out of a sudden, they are no longer there and you have nobody to step in. Regardless of when it happens, the loss of a parent is likely to have an immediate and long-term impact on most parts of your life. In many ways the feelings regarding that loss are just as strong in your later years as they are in childhood.
Nothing can prepare you for their death, even if it is the result of a long illness. The shock of losing them is still very real. The grieving pain is just as unbearable and you feel just as lost and vulnerable as if you were a little kid.
Please note that sometimes death after a long illness, particularly if it was causing them pain and discomfort, can provoke feelings of relief. That’s a normal reaction in such circumstances and you mustn’t feel guilty about it.
How to support a grieving parent
Quite often, the loss of one parent leaves another one grieving and in need of support. Offer to stay with them and help with household chores, taking care of the pets, doing the shopping etc. Make a list of the people who need to be notified, especially if they are not local and call them. Have a glass of water and a box of tissues to hand as there is a chance of you getting upset whilst making some of these phone calls.
If your parent is on medication, you need to remind them to take it. Make sure they stay hydrated and eat regularly. Go out for a walk every day and be willing to listen to what they have to say without volunteering unsolicited advice.
Help with the admin and legal work
There are quite a few legal and administrative tasks that require immediate attention when someone dies. Take your parent to a local registry office and help them to register the death, offer your assistance in dealing with utilities companies and service providers to make sure they cancel any ongoing contracts and payments etc.
If you are left to deal with the estate or you are named as an Executor in your parent’s Will, please visit our Legal Services page for more information and help with Probate.
Help to plan the funeral
The thought of planning a funeral at this difficult time is quite daunting but it has to be done. Start by finding a Funeral Director and make an appointment to see them. They will guide you through all of your available options and help you to make an informed decision.
Discover more about planning a funeral for your loved one.
Moving forward after losing a parent
For many younger people, the death of a parent forces you to grow up overnight and assume responsibility for life without them. It gives you no choice but to become an adult and act accordingly as you “stay strong” for other family members. It can also bring out a certain vulnerability making you feel alone and scared of life without your mother or father by your side.
Although you can never prepare for such a significant loss, you can begin by taking care of yourself. Grief puts your body and mind under a lot of pressure and it consumes most of your energy. Eat and keep hydrated, learn some meditation and breathing exercises to calm yourself and bring the stress levels down. Avoid the use of electronic devices such as mobile phones, tablets and laptops in bed as they transmit blue light which tricks your brain to keep you awake. Grief symptoms improve over time but if any of them persist or affect your daily life, you must go and see your doctor.
In difficult times like this, families come together to grow stronger and support each other. Reach out to your siblings and spend some time with them. Grief has the power to create strong bonds between people but note that it can also become a barrier as some prefer to grieve in private. If that’s the case, make sure you respect their wishes.
Keeping things to yourself and pretending that you are OK may seem like a good strategy but it’s not. Grief doesn’t go away if you pretend that it doesn’t exist. Give it voice and find a way to express your feelings and emotions. Talk to someone about it, start a journal or find a creative outlet for them. The sooner you do that the sooner you can begin to heal.
We offer grief help and support through the National Bereavement Service's (NBS) webchat. It is a free online service which connects you to a trained advisor.
Contributed by Mark Welkin
Mark Welkin is the author of three grief books and a journalist who has worked for various media outlets in Europe and Asia. He lost his long-term partner in 2014 and a few months later, Mark turned to a grief counsellor for help. The results inspired him to share his experience and help other bereaved people to resume life after the loss of their loved ones.