One day I am working and enjoying good relationships with family and friends and all is well in my world. Then I get a message from my brother on my voicemail at work that our mother has been taken to the emergency room for stomach pains. Little do I know that she will never come home again and life as I know it will change forever. She goes from the hospital to a nursing home and finally dies in an ICU seven months later. My childhood is over. The harsh and sudden reality of death is numbing, excruciating and surreal. I feel like I am in slow motion.
Whether a parent dies after an extended illness or from a sudden, unexpected event, we are still caught off guard. Very little prepares us for this shock, even if we think we are prepared. Grief is one of the most difficult challenges which life gives us. If we get through it, the rewards can be resiliency, increased self-confidence, and wisdom. However, the exhaustion, sadness, anger and range of other feelings can threaten to derail us at any time. Grief will often be experienced as an ‘alien,’ crashing into our lives and destroying everything in its path. Short and long term plans are thrown out the window. Though there is no time line for how long grieving will take, in the American culture, we are expected to ‘get over it’ quickly and move on, ready or not. We can come to question ourselves when we’re not getting over it, and wonder if we’re going crazy, or if there is something wrong.
Grief is also a family process, in addition to an individual experience. Prior unresolved personal and family conflicts, secrets, and alliances can surface and feel like they are flooding us. Family members can start voicing old jealousies, fight for possessions, compete to be the one in the deepest state of grief. Family members can also come together, find support and healing with each other.
In losing a parent, we can feel that we have lost our way temporarily, that there is no meaning in life anymore. As we look all around us and within us to find our lost parents again, to locate them again in the world with us, we face the reality that we now carry them inside of us: we are the transporters and shapers of our parents’ values and beliefs.
A number of factors influence the way we respond to death and loss:
- How the parent died: sudden and unexpected or gradual
- The quality of the relationship with the parent
- The support we have during the grief process
- Our past experiences with losses
- What else is going on in our lives, and what ‘stage’ of life we are in.
Alexandra Kennedy outlines some practical steps that help in grieving the loss of one’s parent.
1. Acknowledge the importance and power of the loss. Learn strategies for moving through grief, stage by stage.
2. Take time each day to “honor” your grief. Set up a sanctuary in your home or in nature where you can spend 20-30 minutes a day opening yourself to the grief.
3. Let friends and family know what you need and want from them. Your friends may be at a loss as to what to do. Be specific and clear when asking for food, errands, companionship or the need to withdraw. Remind friends that there is no ‘proper’ time to get over grief.
4. Address any “unfinished business” with your parent. With the help of a loved one, counselor or friend, review and start to heal old wounds.
5. Create new family rituals. Your family may be in temporary chaos or upheaval. The family can learn new ways of relating to one another.
6. Explore your own direction and the quality of your life. What are your current values and beliefs? Where are you headed? New perspectives and choices will emerge.
7. Don’t pressure yourself to ‘go back to normal’ too quickly. Grief has its own rhythm and will take time. Around the 1st anniversary of your parent’s death, old feelings, longings and regrets will surface. These are appropriate and normal.
8. Review all aspects of your relationship with your parent. Look closely at expectations you had of your parent that he or she never could fulfill. Note which expectations you felt your parent had for you which you might not have met.
9. Each year acknowledge the meaning of your parent’s death. Create a ritual to commemorate this loss. Be gentle to yourself as this time of year may cause you to feel depressed and/or vulnerable. Tell a loved one and include them in the ritual if this helps.
10. Celebrate new beginnings and perspectives. These will start to become clear in your life as you move through the various phases of grief. When you feel ready and supported, embark on new insights and ideas.
Here are some books that may be helpful:
- Losing a Parent, by Fiona Marshall
- Losing Your Parents, Finding Yourself, by Victoria Secunda
- Lessons of Loss: A Guide to Coping, by Robert Neimeyer
- The Infinite Thread, Healing Relationships Beyond Loss, by Alexandra Kennedy
- Healing the Adult Child’s Grieving Heart: 100 Practical Ideas After Your Parent Dies (Healing Your Grieving Heart series) by Alan D.Wolfelt, Ph.D.