Losing a Parent - How to Recover and Handle the Grief

Have you ever lost someone? Losing a parent is unbearable, leaving emptiness. Read on to learn how to handle grief.
Losing a Parent - How to Recover and Handle the Grief

Last update: 20 April, 2021

Losing a parent is unbearable. It’s difficult to describe the tumultuous wave of feelings that come and overwhelm you. There’s the fear of coping with loss. More importantly, people feel powerless because they can’t cure the illness and avoid the inevitable.

Losing a parent can feel like losing part of oneself. If they’ve always been there, helping and supporting you, it’s hard to imagine coping without them. Getting through such a bleak period, like losing a parent, proved we’re stronger than we think. Somewhere inside us lies a resilience we never thought possible. 

The loss of your guidance leaves a vast emptiness. It also brings unbearable pain seeming impossible to heal, even if their death was expected. In fact, losing a parent is one of the most emotionally difficult and universal of human experiences. 

While we understand that the parent’s death is inevitable in the abstract sense, it doesn’t lessen the grief. The loss of someone is traumatic, altering people of any age, biologically and psychologically. Nothing is ever the same again, losing a parent wholly transforms us.

According to psychiatrist Dr. Nikole Benders-Hadi, “In cases where a death is unexpected, such as with an acute illness or traumatic accident, people remain in denial and anger, leading to depression”.

Yet, the world at large expects you to quickly recover from your grief, after the prescribed three days of bereavement leave and get back to business. There’s no right or wrong way to grieve the loss of a parent. Yet these strategies can offer a starting place as you begin to acknowledge your loss.

“When we meet real tragedy in life, we can react in one of two ways, by losing hope and falling into self-destructive habits, or by using the challenge to find our inner strength.”

-Dalai Lama-

Know that what you feel is valid

Most people experience the loss of someone in their lifetime. The finality of death feels unbelievable, particularly when it strikes a parent. They’re someone whose presence in your life may have never wavered. You finished growing up and successfully reached adulthood. However, you still needed (and expected to have), your beloved parents for years to come. Losing a parent, your support system, leaves a vast emptiness and pain. This emptiness is impossible to heal, though the loss was expected.

If you and your parents were estranged, there’s a rollercoaster of conflicting emotions. 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 okay as well. 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 parents might have had plenty of challenges, but it represented an important key to your identity. They created you, or adopted you and chose to raise you, and became your first anchor in the world. After such a significant loss, it’s only natural to struggle or experience difficulties coming to terms with your distress. You’ll experience:

  • Anger or frustration.
  • Guilt, perhaps for not contacting them frequently or not being present for their death.
  • Shock and emotional numbness.
  • Confusion, disbelief, or a sense of unreality.
  • Hopelessness or despair.
  • Physical pain.
  • Mental health symptoms, including depression or thoughts of suicide.
  • Relief that they’re no longer in pain.

Bear in mind that losing a parent is overwhelming for some, others cope better. No matter how it hits you, you should try to be strong. Always remember that your feelings are valid, even if they don’t line up with what others think you “should” feel.

Let yourself fully experience the loss (no matter how long it takes)

People react to grief in different ways, but it’s important to let yourself feel all of your feelings. There’s no single right way to grieve after losing a parent. There’s no amount of time where you’ll automatically expect to feel better. No stages of grief to check off a list, making it difficult to accept. Denying your feelings seems like a route toward faster healing. After all, others expect you to bury your grief, moving on before you’ve come to terms with your loss.

Remember that grief is a difficult and painful process. Don’t let other people’s options sway you. Some work through grief in a short time, moving on with the remnants of their sadness tucked away. Others need more time and support. If your parents passed away after a long illness, you had more time to prepare. Yet no amount of preparation makes your grief any less significant when it hits. You still feel stunned and disbelieving, especially if you hoped for their recovery.

Losing a parent unexpectedly still in middle age, on the other hand, forces you to confront your own mortality. Of course, this battle also complicates grief. Something that may utterly help with the grief period, are grief support groups. Friends and loved ones may offer comfort. Nevertheless, a grief support group can fulfill a different kind of social need.

It perfectly connects you to others who have experienced similar losses. It’s not uncommon to feel irritated or frustrated when people in your life who haven’t lost someone consoles you. Their messages of concern only further irritate you. No matter how kind or well-intentioned their words are, they simply don’t understand what you’re going through. In a support group, there’s a shared understanding, with validation of the emotions you’re unable to express to others.

Share loving memories

After losing a parent, it helps to talk to family members and loved ones about what they meant to you. Besides, sharing stories can help keep their memory alive. Do you have children? Consider telling them stories about their grandparent or carrying on family traditions that were important in your childhood.

It might feel painful at first to reminisce. But you may find that your grief begins to ease as the stories start flowing. If you feel unable to openly talk about your parents for the moment, it can also help to collect photographs of special times. Try writing them a letter expressing your grief about their passing.

Not everyone has positive memories of their parents, of course. And people often avoid sharing negative memories about people who’ve passed. If you’ve never discussed or processed what happened, however, you’ll find it even harder to heal and move forward after their death. Opening up to a therapist or someone else you trust can help lighten the load.

We tend to idolize the parent we’ve lost. Why? Well, because they were your parents who you respected and loved. Besides, you can’t bear to criticize them in any way, as they can’t defend themselves. The easiest way to remember them is in the best possible light. 

Keep in mind that no one is perfect, and it’s okay to have negative memories as well as positive ones. Consider doing something in their memory. For people, specific actions help honor a deceased parent, offering comfort. Try:

  • Creating a home memorial with photos and mementos.
  • Planting their favorite tree or flower in your backyard.
  • Adopting their pets or plants.
  • Continuing work they found meaningful, like volunteering or another community service.
  • Donating to their preferred charity or organization.

Unlock a new chapter

No matter how hard it may seem, consider unlocking a new chapter in your life. Society often writes off losing a parent as the natural order of events. However, those who’ve experienced it know how life-changing it is. You feel hurt and lost because you have a heart but that heart is stronger than you ever imagined.

With these strategies above, your heart grows in confidence, beating with new hope. In time, it becomes healthier than ever before. As you can see, you can still enjoy life, and you should. Life is there to be cherished. After all, it’s exactly what your parents would have wanted. Live your life in the knowledge they’d be happy for you.

If you still feel you’re not ready, consider talking to an expert therapist. There’s no shame in needing extra support as you begin processing your parent’s death. In fact, many counselors specialize in providing grief support. A therapist offers validation and guidance as you work through the complex emotions accompanying grief. 

Grief counselors can also teach coping strategies you can use as you begin adjusting to life without your parents. Therapy also offers a safe space to unpack any guilt, anger, resentment, or other lingering emotions around a deceased parent’s, helping you have some level of closure.

Grief after losing a parent drains you, leaving you reeling, no matter what kind of relationship you had. Remember that grieving is a healthy process, one that looks different for everyone. Treat yourself with compassion, embracing patience as you take the time you need to work through your loss.

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  • Chouhy, R. (2000). Función paterna y familia monoparental: ¿ Cuál es el costo de prescindir del padre. Psicología y psicopedagogía.