Coping with the death of a parent
When a parent dies, surviving children face more than the loss of a loved one. Whether the survivor is a very young child or a mature adult, the death of a parent changes life forever.
Few bonds are stronger than the bond between parent and child. A newborn in his mother's arms knows at some level that he is dependent on her for his very life. The growing child relies on his parents for physical sustenance, guidance, and protection from harm. By the time a child reaches adolescence, she has begun the tender process of separating from her parents that will continue into adulthood – yet the bond remains intact. Finally, as the circle of life begins to close, adult children often find themselves caring for their aging parents, just as their parents once cared for them.
To a child too young to comprehend death, a parent's death may be perceived as abandonment; to an adult, it may be a harbinger of his own mortality. At any stage of life, the death of a parent evokes a range of powerful emotions.
Losing a parent as an adult
Nine years after the death of her husband of almost 50 years, a 73-year-old woman died following a brief bout with cancer. At the wake, one of the couple's daughters, a woman in her late 40s, smiled through her tears as she said, "I guess we're orphans now." Given the daughter's age and the fact that she, herself, was a grandmother, such a statement may seem odd, but if you've lost a parent, you may relate to the feelings behind the daughter's words.
Following the death of a parent, you may be surprised by the intensity of your grief. Even if an elderly parent has been in poor health for a long time, the finality of death usually comes as a shock and may lead to conflicting feelings, such as sadness, relief, anger, and guilt. And in some circumstances – if your relationship with your parent was troubled, for example, or if the death occurred suddenly or under violent circumstances – grief may be further complicated, intensified, or prolonged.
In the U.S., our attitudes toward grieving are often unrealistic. Many employers, for example, allow a mere 3-day mourning period for employees who have lost a close family member – hardly enough time to bury the dead, let alone come to grips with the loss. And when your parent dies, you may sense an even greater, unspoken expectation that you will dust off your grief and carry on – for a child to bury a parent is, after all, the natural order of things.
Don't let expectations – whether your own or others' – tell you how or how long to grieve. The death of a parent, even after a long and full life, has a tremendous emotional impact, and healing can take place only when you allow yourself to confront your feelings.
- Remember that grief comes in waves, and healing takes time. Give yourself the time and space to mourn in a way that feels right for you.
- Express your feelings. Talk to a friend, keep a journal, or join a support group. Any method you use to verbalize your feelings will help you to heal.
- Take care of yourself. Getting plenty of rest and exercise and eating nourishing foods will help you to cope. Avoid using alcohol or chemicals to medicate your feelings.
Helping a child whose parent has died
Before they reach the age of 18, one in 20 children in the U.S. will experience the death of a parent. While most of them will suffer no long-term emotional problems as a result, it's important to be aware that children who lose a parent are at greater risk for depression, withdrawal, anxiety, behavior problems, and poor self-esteem.
If you are the surviving parent, a family member, or a caring friend of a grieving child, there are several things you can do to help the grieving child in their journey through bereavement.
- As far as possible, maintain daily routines, such as bed times, meal times, and scheduled activities.
- Hug, hold, or cuddle the child often.
- Be patient and tolerant when the child exhibits regressive behaviors, such as thumb sucking or bed wetting.
- Be honest with the child, and share your own feelings as appropriate.
- Explain matters and answer questions truthfully, in simple but direct terms. Avoid using euphemisms or cliches. If you don't have an answer, say so.
- Encourage the child to express thoughts and feelings in healthy ways. Depending on the child's age, art, music, reading, keeping a journal, or just talking about her grief may be helpful.
- If the child acts out in unacceptable ways, address the behavior and explore the feelings behind it.
- Don't expect the child to assume adult responsibilities, and gently discourage him if he attempts to do so.
Further sources of information
You may find our other articles in the Death of family members section helpful too.
Visit our Amazon store to find books on coping with the loss of a parent.