How to Deal with the Loss of a Parent: Tips from a Grief Therapist:

Why losing a parent is different than any other type of loss.

As therapists, we walk with people through all types of grief and loss. From the loss of a loved one, job, dream, or part of yourself, grief is inevitable as part of the human experience. At Alive Counselling we have a wonderful team of therapists who offer grief counselling in Kelowna and Online. Robin Gabert specializes in grief and loss therapy in Kelowna and knows grief well.

In my own life and relationships, I have seen many friends walk through all different sorts of grief, but the loss of a parent just hits different. So, I wanted to share some tips from a therapist from Every Day Health in processing grief and walking through mourning (PSA: it is important and healthy)! Check it out below:

Losing a parent is different from other types of loss

For many, a parent’s death may be one of our most profound losses.

Saying goodbye to a parent is a life-changing experience, marking the end of a bond we’ve known for our entire lives, explains Heidi Horsley, PsyD, executive director and cofounder of the Open to Hope Foundation, a nonprofit organization that supports people experiencing grief and loss.

Until it happens, we don’t know what our lives are like without our parents, she says. “To have them gone can be traumatic, whether it’s sudden or expected.”

Our biological parents give us life, and the parents who raise us (whether biological or not) shape our lives in really big ways, adds Alexandra Kennedy, a Santa Cruz, California–based licensed marriage and family therapist and author of several books on grief, including Honoring Grief, and Losing a Parent. “They’re with us from day one, forming the foundation of our identity.”

Research backs this up. Survey data, for example, shows people continue to report trouble sleeping, concentrating at work, getting along with people, and a strong emotional response one to five years after losing a parent. Other research suggests losing a parent puts someone at a higher risk of numerous negative mental and physical health outcomes, including higher likelihood of binge drinking, self-esteem issues, and overall decline in happiness.

Losing a parent doesn’t mean you’ll experience these things, but the research underscores how challenging it is to cope with a parent’s death, and that we may be more vulnerable to some of these negative health outcomes when it happens.

This evidence also reinforces that parents often play critical roles in our self-confidence and sense of purpose throughout our lives, and struggling with this type of loss is to be expected, Kennedy says.

Remember that the grieving process is very individual, Dr. Horsley adds. “There is no ‘right’ way to grieve that applies to everyone,” she says. “But there are things you can do to help you along the process.”

Can Grief Affect You Physically? Very much so!

Psychiatrist Allison Young, MD, explains the external symptoms you might experience while grieving. You can watch the video explanation here

If you’ve lost a parent, here are some of the things that might help you cope:

1. Recognize Grief Shows Up as Many Different Emotions

Learn about how grief works so you can work with it instead of resisting it, says Lisa De Sieno, a licensed professional counselor and director of bereavement services at Mayo Clinic in Eau Claire, Wisconsin.

De Sieno says you may encounter feelings like:

  • Disbelief
  • Sadness
  • Yearning
  • Numbness
  • Frustration
  • Anxiety
  • An inability to focus

2. Let Yourself Feel All the Emotions That Do Show Up

Some people’s natural response to grief is to suppress the difficult emotions that come up with it. This may be in an effort to “stay strong”; in other cases, people may feel the need to turn to work, drinking, or other distractions. But ultimately if you are never giving yourself space to feel, this approach won’t actually help you cope with and work through what you’re feeling, says Carla Marie Manly, PsyD, a clinical psychologist based in Sonoma County, California.

What’s more, suppressing feelings or compartmentalizing them can cause your unaddressed feelings to bubble up in outbursts or to leave you closed off emotionally to the people around you.

Allowing yourself to grieve (to face your pain) activates healing within your body, Kennedy says. It’s okay to use distraction and other methods to get you through parts of your day, but doing so all the time can be unhealthy. Allowing yourself to feel your emotions forces you to find ways to cope with and live with your grief. It makes you emotionally stronger.

3. Establish a Support System

Whether you’re leaning on family members, friends, group therapy, or a bereavement counselor, turn to your support system, Kennedy says. Research suggests turning to a relative or close friend who also lost a parent can be beneficial. Other research finds that for both young adults and middle-aged adults who lose a parent, counseling and support from loved ones helps.

Choose confidantes who can provide you with the listening ear that you need, De Sieno says. Talking it out can help you with processing your emotions, she says.

RELATED: Our Picks for the Best Virtual Counseling Programs

4. Write Your Parent a Letter

When someone you know passes away, there’s always a chance that there’s something you didn’t get to tell or resolve with that person. Some people are devastated that a parent didn’t share family recipes, others mourn unresolved arguments or conversations that never took place, and others feel sad that a parent missed a graduation or wedding or other special event.

Try writing a letter to your parent, Kennedy says. Focus on what you didn’t get to tell your parent, what you want to thank them for, what you regret, and what you hope to carry on as part of their legacy. “Understand it won’t be sent but it’s for you to process and unload what you’re holding inside. It’s amazing how people have healed by writing that letter,” Kennedy says.

5. Allow Yourself to Grieve in Small Doses (and Keep Doing So as Needed)

Kennedy, whose father, Charles, died from cancer in 1988, says that a common misconception about grief is that you get through it and it’s over. Oftentimes people expect that once they do the work to clear out someone’s house and get rid of someone’s possessions, after a certain amount of time, you’ll just heal. Grief is rarely that straightforward. For profound losses, grief never completely goes away and it can take a long time to learn to live with that grief.

Kennedy recommends designating small amounts of time for grief to start to learn how to cope with it. Give yourself 20 minutes everyday to grieve alone in a safe space, Kennedy says. Mourn, cry, allow yourself to feel your grief fully without holding back, and then try to move about your day as you otherwise would, doing your job, schoolwork, or taking care of home or other responsibilities. “It needs our attention for small periods of time, so our nervous system doesn’t get overwhelmed,” Kennedy says.

If you don’t feel safe grieving alone because you fear it will be overwhelming, consider including a friend or family member, or reaching out to a counselor or therapist to help create a safe space.

6. Plan for Holidays, Birthdays, and the Anniversary of a Parent’s Death

The first year without your parent around for holidays like Christmas, Mother’s Day, and Father’s Day, may hurt, De Sieno says. Some families may even find the second year just as raw. Planning ahead for these key dates can make a difference.

Horsley, whose father died in October 2020, suggests starting a tradition or a family ritual that could be as simple as lighting a candle, making a toast, or preparing your parent’s favorite meal to share with the family to remember that person on an occasion you know they’ll be missed at. On her father’s birthday, she invites her family and friends over to share a funny story or memory they have of her father. This tradition helped the group learn more about Horsley’s father — even the quirky, minute details they previously knew nothing about.

7. Pick a Way to Keep Your Parent in Your Life

Some families keep photos and mementos of their parent around the home to keep their memory fresh in their daily lives, De Sieno says.

When Manly’s mother died, her husband planted a redwood tree in their backyard in her honor. “Every time I see that redwood tree, it reminds me of her,” Manly says. One of her clients uses her mom’s vintage aprons anytime she’s baking in the kitchen.

You could also:

  • Plant your parent’s favorite flowers in your garden.
  • Continue in hobbies and work your parent found meaningful, like volunteering, sewing, fishing, or community service.
  • Donate to your parent’s favorite cause.
  • Watch and read your parent’s favorite books or movies.

These actions can be comforting and they’re a way to honor your loss, Manly says.

8. Find Meaning in Your Loss

Losing her father and her brother is what inspired Horsley to start the Open to Hope Foundation, which is dedicated to helping others find meaning and purpose following their loss. She says helping others cope with their pain and heal from their grief is precisely what her father would have wanted her to do.

For Kennedy, her father’s death is what encouraged her to study grief and provide bereavement counseling for decades afterwards. “Whenever I do a talk, or teach a class, I feel my father there.”

Try to find meaning from your loss, too. Recognize when you are completing a tradition your parent started or living out a lesson they passed on to you. It’s a way for you to reconnect with the parent you’ve lost and find meaning in that loss, she says. But don’t force it, she adds — let these moments come to you naturally.

“Yes, you’ve lost your parent, but they are still very much alive in you,” she says.

When Should You Seek Help for Coping With Grief Over Losing a Parent?

There’s no such thing as normal grief; and there’s no set amount of time you should consider it normal to grieve for. It’s important to anticipate having good days and bad days when you’ve experienced a loss, Manly says.

But if grief continues to interfere with your day-to-day functioning severely and for a long time, it’s important to know that there are resources available to help you cope. If you’re dealing with the following concerns for longer than a month to six weeks, it may be time to seek out bereavement therapy, group therapy, or one-on-one counseling with a therapist, Manly and Horsley suggest:

  • You can’t stop crying or refuse to get out of bed.
  • You’re having trouble keeping up with your responsibilities at work, school or home.
  • You have trouble sleeping or are sleeping too much.
  • You have little interest in food or you’re binge eating.
  • You have a hard time making decisions.
  • You’re blaming yourself for their death.
  • You’re in constant disbelief that your parent died.
  • You’re feeling alone, detached from others, or distrustful of others since their death.
  • You’re feeling like life is meaningless or empty without the loved one.
  • You have a loss of identity or purpose in life.

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