Losing a Parent: What You Need to Know About Grief and Finding Healing
Losing a parent is one of those moments in life that, as an adult, we know will come. It’s more than just a “death in the family.” Losing a parent signifies the end of an era, of a connection you’ve had your entire life. Even if the connection to your parent was less than you’d hoped, the loss can still have a tremendous impact.
This was the person who gave you life. This was the person whose very existence shaped who you would become. When a child loses a parent, the stakes are even higher.
Facing the death of a parent is never easy, and the loss is profound. Just how you’ll react to the loss is something you can’t predict, even when the loss is expected. It’s a unique kind of loss that carries a lot of emotional weight.
Knowing how to handle losing mom or dad is not something we’re ever really prepared for. Death isn’t something we talk about until it happens. Understanding grief and loss and finding healthy ways to cope can help you heal and find peace.
Here’s a closer look at grief and six tips for dealing with your loss.
What is grief?
Defining “grief” is tricky. Grief is a natural response to a loss, usually the loss of a loved one. It’s about the emotional experience and the process of losing someone. There are stages of grief that you may experience. Each stage focuses on a central theme or emotion related to grieving.
Probably the best-known stages of grief are those that were first described by Elisabeth Kubler-Ross:
- Denial – “This is NOT happening.” Denial is a defense mechanism that allows you to process what has just happened. As you begin to accept what’s happened, your emotions will start to surface.
- Anger – Some people experience anger about their loss. Anger is one of those emotions that often is the outer expression of deeper feelings like fear or hurt. You might even feel angry at the parent you’ve lost.
- Bargaining – “If I’d only come home sooner, he would still be here.” Losing someone can leave you feeling out of control. Bargaining is a way to regain some sense of control and make sense of what happened. It’s a defense mechanism to help delay dealing with feelings.
Some people may also try to “make a deal” with their higher power as a way to avoid the pain of the loss. “If you’ll bring him back, I will…”
- Depression – This stage is where the sadness and the reality of the loss settle in. It is this stage that you might most associate with “grieving.”
You may experience many feelings and changes, including:
- Crying spells
- Poor sleep
It is this stage of depression that people often struggle to move through. When that happens, people can develop what’s commonly known as complicated grief.
- Acceptance – This is the goal of the grieving process. Acceptance is the acknowledgment of the loss and allowing yourself to work toward a place of healing and peace.
Another way to look at grief is as the ebb and flow of intense emotions, kind of like being on a rough sea. It’s not a smooth journey. Emotions will be up and down, sometimes chaotic, intense, and even confusing. And it’s not the same for everyone.
Some people will feel all the feelings and then some. Others will spend a lot of time dealing with certain feelings and little or no time with other feelings.
Types of grief
How we lose someone can shape how we grieve.
Anticipatory grief occurs before the actual loss happens. It’s the type of grief often seen when a loved one is terminally ill. You know the loss is imminent.
Some of the signs of anticipatory grief include:
- Depression or anxiety
- Crying spells
- Thinking about what their death might be like
- Fear of what is to come
Anger can be particularly prominent with anticipatory grief. Allowing yourself to feel the loss can seem like giving up. On the other hand, knowing that the loss is imminent provides an opportunity to resolve any unfinished emotional business and say goodbyes.
Most of the time, the intensity of the pain eases and gives way to healing. Sometimes though, people get stuck in their grief and struggle to move on. When that happens, they can experience an intense type of grief known as complicated grief.
Signs of complicated grief can include:
- Anxiety, depression, intense sorrow or longing
- Feeling emotionally numb or detached
- Anger or bitterness
- Feeling as if life no longer has meaning or purpose
- Loss of enjoyment and avoiding social activities
- Difficulty returning to your normal routine
- Feeling guilt or blaming yourself for the loss
- Feeling as if life isn’t worth living without them or wishing you’d died along with them
Complicated grief keeps you in a state of grieving and emotional exhaustion. Grief counseling can be particularly helpful for dealing with complicated grief.
Traumatic grief occurs in response to a sudden, unexpected loss. It is not unlike other forms of grief, but the emotional response tends to be quite intense. People who experience traumatic grief are at a higher risk of developing complicated grief.
Given the trauma of such a loss, it is not surprising that traumatic grief is also associated with developing Post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). Traumatic grief often requires professional support and grief counseling to address these symptoms.
When a child loses a parent
The grief of losing a parent is unlike any other you will experience. Even as an adult, you are still your parent’s child and will feel the loss, perhaps quite deeply. This holds even if your connection to your parent was not strong. You may grieve what was lost. You may grieve what could have been.
As an adult, you have the benefit of life experience and maturity to manage these feelings. When a young child loses a parent, they may need help understanding what has happened.
Losing a parent at a young age presents unique challenges for managing the grief that will surely come. Children are still in their early emotional development, and how the loss is handled can set the stage for healing and growth beyond the loss.
Children tend to grieve in ways that look very different from adult grief. Very young children will struggle to understand the loss and may see it as temporary and reversible. Older children may have some better understanding but may not completely understand.
Some signs a child is grieving may include:
- Acting out or regressing in behavior
- Disruptions in sleep or appetite
- Depression or loss of interest in activities, withdrawal from friends
- Becoming clingy or fearful
- Expressing a desire to be with the parent they lost.
These can all be a normal part of the grieving process. Kids can also experience complicated grief. Grief counseling can help kids work through their loss.
Finding the right words
Knowing what to say to someone who has lost a parent is never easy. Death is not something that most families talk openly about. People fear saying the wrong thing, and when we don’t know what to say, we tend to not say anything.
Sometimes the simplest expressions can convey deep care:
- “I’m sorry for your loss.”
- “How can I support you?”
- If you’re at a loss for words, it’s OK to say that too. “I wish I had the right words. Just know that I care and I’m here.”
If you’ve lost your parent and people seem to be avoiding the subject, it’s likely that they care very deeply but are unsure what to say.
How to deal with losing a parent
No one or nothing can fully prepare you for the loss of a parent, even when you know it’s imminent. Knowing what to expect and how to manage your season of grieving can help you heal and find peace.
The key to dealing with the death of a parent, as with any significant loss, is self-compassion. Be kind to yourself. The first few months after a loss are often referred to as “grief fog.” You will make mistakes along the way. Some days, it will feel like you’ll never be happy again.
Here are six tips for dealing with your loss:
- Give yourself time – Grief is a process that takes time. Go at your own pace.
- Face your feelings – Part of the grieving process is acknowledging the pain and dealing with the feelings that will come. Journaling can be a great tool for sorting out everything you’re feeling.
- Spend time with family and friends – Getting out and doing things helps to avoid isolation and helps you get back into a routine.
- Do things for you – It’s ok to get back to enjoying the hobbies and activities you love.
- Seek support. You might be trying to “be strong,” but even superheroes need help sometimes. It’s ok to let others support you. Talking with someone about how you’re feeling can be healing.
Research has found that emotional support is the most desired type of support following a loss. Sources of support might include family or good friends, a support group, or even grief counseling.
- Practice self-care. Make time to eat well and get some movement in your day. Make sure you’re getting good sleep. In the early days, this might be hard. If you’re struggling, reach out to your healthcare provider for advice.
Self-care also includes taking care of your mental health. Take time to do things that are emotionally soothing and let you express yourself creatively. Activities like journaling, yoga, and meditation have been shown to enhance the healing process.
The next steps
Losing a parent is never easy, and no one tells us how we are supposed to handle that kind of loss. If you find yourself struggling to find the right words or if you’re feeling stuck, talking with someone can help.
A trained therapist can help you understand your grief and find healthy ways of coping and healing so that you can move forward.
Today, finding therapy is easier than ever. Online therapy makes seeing a therapist convenient and comfortable. With online therapy, you can see your therapist from the comfort of your home and at times that work with your busy schedule.
Best of all, online therapy is at least as effective as traditional in-person therapy. You can heal from your loss and find peace. Therapy can help you get there.
Dawn Ferrara has spent over 20 years in clinical practice, and now uses her clinical knowledge and experience to create well-researched, reader-friendly articles for people seeking information and support. Her passion for supporting and educating individuals and families about mental health issues is evident in her informative, respectful, and empathetic writing style. Dawn’s belief is that every person is unique, and that in every situation, there is hope. You will find that message of hope in her writing.Read more