“…the death of a parent is not something that becomes easier with age, nor is it a loss that fades with time: on the contrary, a parent’s death stays with you and shapes you for the rest of your life; it becomes a condition of your existence, like having blue eyes or black hair.”
— Rebecca Abrams: When Parents Die
The death of a parent is always a shocking and is often a life changing experience. This is as true for adults as it is for children and young people. Adults, however, are expected to be able to cope, to get on and take things in their stride. The reality can be quite different.
No matter how old you are, you are always your parent’s child. Whether the relationship was close or difficult, whether contact was regular or occasional and distant, parents are a reference point – one of the ways in which we define our sense of self and our place in the world.
Grief – a normal response – Grief is the powerful, often painful and confusing response to the loss of an important person in your life. It changes how you feel, physically and emotionally, how you think and how you behave.
It is important to realize that ‘normal’ does not mean ‘easy’. Grief is a difficult experience. Having an understanding of the many feelings and sensations involved will not take the pain away, but it can help to make it more manageable.
It is easy to imagine that you are ‘cracking-up’, that there is something physically and mentally wrong with you during this time of grief. Loss of appetite, sleeplessness, absent-minded behaviour, unexpected emotions – these are just some of the signs and symptoms of grief.
Grief is unpredictable. It does not stay the same each day, but rather comes in waves so that you may experience swings between good days and bad days, highs and lows.
Powerful feelings – ‘Suddenly it was like living in a house without a roof’. This is how one man described the impact of his mother’s death. A parent’s death shatters a lifetime bond. Depending on the nature of the relationship, you may unexpectedly feel vulnerable and exposed. ‘Dad was always there – I knew I could rely on him. What will I do now?’ Feelings of loneliness can be made worse by the insensitivity and lack of understanding of other people. The gap that has appeared in your life since the death may be invisible to those around you.
Few relationships are trouble free. We bring into adult life all of the hurts and misunderstandings of childhood. A parent’s death may remove the chance to resolve difficulties or make amends. A parent’s death can leave you struggling with powerful feelings of regret, guilt and anger as you try to come to terms with the changes in your life.
Changed relationships – The death of a parent may also result in significant changes in your relationships with other close family members. You may, for example, feel a greater sense of responsibility to support and care for your surviving parent – a responsibility that can be difficult to manage as you cope with your own grief. Adult children typically report that this a time of great stress and emotion for them.
A parent’s death means having to reassess the past while dealing with the present – Family members may also feel pulled in different directions. Everyone has had a different relationship with the person who has died. Expect that there may be arguments and differences of opinion within the family. Siblings may also find that the death of a parent brings up feelings of old jealousies and rivalries from childhood. These differences and stresses can be a source of conflict and can result in disputes over wills, property and personal effects.
- Be patient and understanding with yourself as you come to terms with your loss.
- Allowing yourself time to express your feelings can help.
- Most people cope with a death privately and quietly. It may, however, be helpful to meet with someone outside of the family who understands what you are going through, particularly if you feel you are not coping.
Written by Jim Rhatigan, Senior Social Worker