Helping Yourself Heal When a Parent Dies
by Alan D. Wolfelt, Ph.D.
Your mother or father has died. Whether you had a good, bad or indifferent relationship with the parent who died, your feelings for him or her were probably quite strong. At bottom, most of us love our parents deeply. And they love us with the most unconditional love that imperfect human beings can summons.
You are now faced with the difficult, but necessary, need to mourn the loss of this significant person in your life. Mourning is the open expression of your thoughts and feelings about the death. It is an essential part of healing.
Realize Your Grief is Unique
Your grief is unique. No one grieves in exactly the same way. Your particular experience will be influenced by the type of relationship you had with your parent, the circumstances surrounding the death, your emotional support system and your cultural and religious background.
As a result, you will grieve in your own way and in your own time. Don't try to compare your experience with that of other people, or adopt assumptions about just how long your grief should last. Consider taking a "one-day-at-a-time" approach that allows you to grieve at your own pace.
Expect to Feel a Multitude of Emotions
The parent-child bond is perhaps the most fundamental of all human ties. When your mother or father dies, that bond is torn. In response to this loss you may feel a multitude of strong emotions.
Numbness, confusion, fear, guilt, relief and anger are just a few of the feelings you may have. Sometimes these emotions will follow each other within a short period of time. Or they may occur simultaneously.
While everyone has unique feelings about the death of a parent, some of the more common emotions include:
You probably expected to feel sad when your parent died, but you may be surprised at the overwhelming depth of your feelings of loss. It's natural to feel deeply sad. After all, someone who loved you without condition and cared for you as no one else could have is now gone. If this was your second parent to die, you may feel especially sorrowful; becoming an "adult orphan" can be a very painful transition. You may also feel sad because the loss of a parent triggers secondary losses, such as the loss of a grandparent to your children. Allow yourself to feel sad and embrace your pain.
If your parent was sick for a time before the death, you may well feel relief when he or she finally dies. This feeling may be particularly strong if you were responsible for your ill parent's care. This does not mean you did not love your parent. In fact, your relief at the end to suffering is a natural outgrowth of your love.
If you came from a dysfunctional or abusive family, you may feel unresolved anger toward your dead parent. His or her death may bring painful feelings to the surface. On the other hand, you may feel angry because a loving relationship in your life has prematurely ended. If you are angry, try to examine the source of that often legitimate anger and work to come to terms with it.
If your relationship with your parent was rocky, distant or ambivalent, you may feel guilty when that parent dies. You may wish you had said things you wanted to say but never did-or you may wish you could unsay hurtful things. You may wish you had spent more time with your parent. Guilt and regret can be normal responses to the death of your mother or father. And working through those feelings is essential to healing.
As strange as some of these emotions may seem, they are normal and healthy. Let yourself feel whatever you may be feeling; don't judge yourself or try to repress painful thoughts and feelings. And whenever you can, find someone who will hear you out as you explore your grief.
Recognize the Death's Impact on Your Entire Family
If you have brothers or sisters, the death of this parent will probably affect them differently than it is affecting you. After all, each of them...