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Coping with the Loss of a Parent: Guidance from Psychologists on the Grieving Process
Losing a parent can be one of the most significant losses a person can face. The death of a parent is a life-changing experience, marking the end of a bond that has existed throughout our entire lives. This can be a traumatic event, whether it was sudden or expected, as it forces us to confront a world without the presence of a parent. Heidi Horsley, PsyD, executive director, and co-founder of the Open to Hope Foundation, a nonprofit organization that supports people experiencing grief and loss, explains that until it happens, we can’t fathom what our lives would be like without our parents.
Our biological parents are the ones who give us life, and the parents who raise us, whether biological or not, shape our lives in profound ways. Alexandra Kennedy, a licensed marriage and family therapist based in Santa Cruz, California, and author of several books on grief, including Honoring Grief and Losing a Parent, highlights that they form the foundation of our identity from day one.
Research shows that people continue to report trouble sleeping, concentrating at work, getting along with people, and experiencing a strong emotional response one to five years after losing a parent. Moreover, losing a parent puts someone at a higher risk of numerous negative mental and physical health outcomes, including a higher likelihood of binge drinking, self-esteem issues, and overall decline in happiness.
Though losing a parent does not guarantee experiencing these outcomes, it underscores the difficulty of coping with the loss, and we may be more vulnerable to some of these negative health outcomes when it happens. This evidence reinforces that parents often play critical roles in our self-confidence and sense of purpose throughout our lives, and it’s expected that struggling with this type of loss is part of the grieving process, according to Kennedy.
Dr. Horsley emphasizes that grieving is a highly individual process, and there is no universal way to grieve that applies to everyone. However, certain things can help individuals cope with the process.
Here are the tips to help you cope with your grief:
Recognize that Grief Manifests in Different Emotions
Grief can evoke many emotions that vary from person to person. It is crucial to acknowledge the feelings that surface, rather than resisting them. By doing so, you can begin to process your emotions and work through your grief.
Allow Yourself to Feel All Your Emotions
Suppressing your emotions can cause more harm than good. While it may be tempting to distract yourself with work, drinking, or other activities, doing so all the time can be unhealthy. Allowing yourself to grieve and feel your emotions activates healing within your body. Coping with grief can be challenging, but it can make you emotionally stronger.
Establish a Support System
Having a support system can help you feel less alone during the grieving process. Family members, friends, group therapy, or a bereavement counselor can provide a listening ear to help you process your emotions.
Write a Letter to Your Parent
Writing a letter to your parent can help you express feelings you were unable to share before. You can focus on thanking your parent, expressing your regrets, and sharing what you hope to carry on as part of their legacy.
Allow Yourself to Grieve in Small Doses
It is a common misconception that grief ends after a certain amount of time. For profound losses, grief never completely goes away, and it can take a long time to learn to live with it. Designating small amounts of time for grief can help you learn how to cope with it. Give yourself 20 minutes every day to grieve alone in a safe space, mourn, cry, and allow yourself to feel your grief fully. Then, try to move about your day as you otherwise would.
Plan for Holidays, Birthdays, and the Anniversary of a Parent’s Death
The first year without your parent can be especially hard during holidays, birthdays, and the anniversary of their death. It can be helpful to start a tradition or family ritual to remember them on these occasions.
Keep Your Parent’s Memory Alive
Keeping mementos or photos of your parent around your home can help keep their memory fresh in your daily life. You can also create new traditions or rituals to remember them, like planting a tree or using their favorite apron when baking. Whatever you choose to do, keeping your parent’s memory alive can help you cope with your grief.
Discover Purpose in Your Loss
After experiencing the loss of her father and brother, Horsley established the Open to Hope Foundation, an organization committed to helping others discover meaning and purpose after suffering a loss. According to Horsley, supporting others in coping with their pain and healing from their grief is precisely what her father would have wanted her to do.
Similarly, Kennedy’s father’s passing inspired her to specialize in grief counseling and offer bereavement support for decades to come. “Whenever I do a talk or teach a class, I feel my father there,” she shares.
You, too, can find significance in your loss. Acknowledge when you’re continuing a tradition your parent began or putting into practice a lesson they taught you. This allows you to reconnect with the parent you’ve lost and discover meaning in their passing. However, it’s important not to force these moments but let them come to you naturally.
Even though you’ve lost your parent, they live on within you. As Horsley says, “Yes, you’ve lost your parent, but they are still very much alive in you.”
Seeking Help for Coping with the Loss of a Parent
Losing a parent can be an incredibly difficult experience, and it’s normal to feel a range of emotions during the grieving process. However, when the grief starts to interfere with your daily life, it may be time to consider seeking help. In this article, we’ll discuss when you should seek professional assistance for coping with the loss of a parent.
No “Normal” Grief
First and foremost, it’s important to understand that there is no such thing as “normal” grief. Everyone experiences loss differently, and there is no set timeline for how long the grieving process should last. According to psychotherapist Carla Marie Manly, it’s important to anticipate having good days and bad days when you’ve experienced a loss.
Signs It’s Time to Seek Help
However, if your grief continues to interfere with your day-to-day functioning severely and for a prolonged period of time, it may be time to consider professional help. Psychotherapist Carla Marie Manly and founder of the Open to Hope Foundation, Dr. Gloria Horsley, suggest seeking out bereavement therapy, group therapy, or one-on-one counseling with a therapist if you experience any of the following concerns for longer than a month to six weeks:
- Overwhelming sadness: You find yourself crying often or struggling to get out of bed.
- Difficulty functioning: You’re having trouble keeping up with responsibilities at work, school, or home.
- Sleep disturbances: You have trouble sleeping or are sleeping too much.
- Changes in appetite: You have little interest in food or you’re binge eating.
- Difficulty making decisions: You have a hard time making decisions, even small ones.
- Blaming yourself: You’re blaming yourself for your parent’s death.
- Disbelief: You’re in constant disbelief that your parent has died.
- Social isolation: You’re feeling alone, detached from others, or distrustful of others since their death.
- Feelings of emptiness: You’re feeling like life is meaningless or empty without the loved one.
- Loss of identity: You have a loss of identity or purpose in life.
If you’re experiencing any of these symptoms, it’s important to seek out professional help. A therapist or grief counselor can help you navigate the grieving process and find ways to cope with your loss. Remember, seeking help is not a sign of weakness, but a brave step towards healing and moving forward.