The loss of one’s father or mother is one of the most emotional and universal human experiences. But just because the passing of a parent happens to almost everyone doesn’t make it any easier. The death of a parent is not just traumatic, it also informs and changes a person’s world entirely. And the grief one experiences after the loss is substantial.
There isn’t a road map for dealing with grief. Each situation comes with its own unique specifics. The grief might be intense right away, or it might not be and slowly crop up in the coming years.
“After the initial loss, adults often find it difficult to focus and be productive in their personal and professional lives,” says Maria Georgopoulos, Director of Bereavement Services at Calvary Hospital. “Bereavement support can help adults adjust to the changes in their life and work toward establishing some balance in their lives again. This will help them return to feelings of normalcy.”
How one pulls through all depends on the scenario and the person. Grief has no real timeline. However, there are certain things everyone should keep in mind after the loss of a parent, some points that can make the process a bit easier.
Understand the Stages of Grief
No one grieves in the same way. But there are stages that most people go through after the loss of a loved one. As outlined by Elisabeth Kubler-Ross, who identified the five-stage process for grieving, these stages include denial, anger, negotiation, depression, and, finally, acceptance. Recognizing them is critical. Equally important to recognize is that there is no timeline for any of the steps and there are also situations when someone may fall back to another part of the process. Understanding that there are stages, however, serves as a way to cope and realize that what you’re feeling is natural.
Allow Yourself to Actually Grieve
When a parent dies, there is sometimes a feeling on the part of the bereaved that they have to “stay strong” or put on a brave face for the rest of the family. Doing this can keep you from going through your own natural and necessary grieving process. There is also the feeling that grief has an expiration date, and that there comes a point where someone who has lost a parent should get over the loss. This also isn’t true.
“Grief has to run its own course. Sometimes it can take months — sometimes it can take years,” says BJ Ghallager, a sociologist and the author of Your Life Is Your Prayer. “Grief takes many different forms and may show up in surprising ways. Honor your own process and your own timetable.”
Share Your Feelings
The pain of a loss is almost too much to confront or even talk about. This happens. But often people who have suffered a loss keep it inside, choosing not to talk about it or deal with it openly at all. This is a mistake, experts agree. Bottling up grief only makes it come out in other, less healthy ways. When you’re ready, it’s important to talk about your loss with friends and family members, or even consider joining a support group.
“We human beings are social creatures — we are designed to tend and befriend when we are under stress,” Ghallager says. “We are built for sharing — the good stuff in life and the bad stuff too. You can lighten your load by sharing your grief with others.”
Choose Your Confidantes Wisely
Opening up is wise. Being selective about to whom who you open up is even wiser. Don’t talk to people who are only interested in giving you advice or telling you the best ways to grieve. And people who think it’s their job to save you from your grief will only hinder your grief process and build up resentment. “Choose people who are good listeners,” says Ghallager. “People who can hold a space for your feelings, who can be a loving witness to your pain and let you know that you don’t have to go through it alone.”
Grieve With Your Children
Don’t be afraid to show your children that you’re upset over a parent’s death. After all, they have also lost a grandmother or grandfather. If you act as though you have nothing to grieve about, they will take that cue and suppress their own feelings, which is not a healthy example for anyone.
“Not only does seeing you grieve help normalize their own feelings,” says Georgopoulos, “But it models that they too can grieve and yet still participate in the world and go on, even if they don’t feel 100 percent for now.” It’s important to make sure everyone knows it’s okay to express feelings of sadness on their own schedule.
Respect Traditions — But Be Aware of Triggers
As you work through grief, there will be certain things you see or moments you encounter that will trigger your feelings more than others. Often, these are holidays and family gatherings. It’s important to let your friends and family know about these moments so that they can provide support or simply understand that it might be more emotional for you.
Now, traditions are a big part of family life. There are two ways to cope with traditions in the wake of a loss, says Kim Wheeler Poitevien, LCSW, who runs a private practice in Philadelphia. One way is to honor the memory of the lost parent by doing the things that they loved to do. Celebrating a holiday, eating at a favorite restaurant, cooking a favorite meal. Another is to create new traditions. “Instead of plugging through a family tradition that causes more pain, create a new tradition,” she suggests. “Maybe Thanksgiving can happen at a restaurant. Go away for Christmas. Serve a different meal.” It’s all about trying things that work for you.
Whether it’s in the form of a support group or one-on-one therapy, having someone with whom you can talk about your grief is extremely beneficial. There are numerous in-person and online support groups comprised of people who are going through the same thing as well as therapists who are trained to offer counseling to those suffering a loss. Whichever you choose, both serve the purpose of letting you discuss your feelings in a safe space and share advice and coping mechanisms that can help you along your journey.
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