How to Cope with the Death of a Parent

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Losing a parent is something almost all of us will experience. And yet, the death of a parent is different for everyone, because the resulting grief is personal, just as your relationship with your mom or dad was. Siblings don’t respond to the death of a parent in the exact same way. Factors such as how close you are with your parent, what stage you are at in your own life, and how you connected you felt every day will shape the way you feel in the aftermath of that death.

When my father died several years ago, I was in my late 20s and it devastated me in ways that I cannot, even now, put into words. We were very close; the picture of my life stretching out before me always included the prominent presence of my dad. Yet even in the depths of that grief, I knew there were things that needed to be done, and that it would help me to do them: write an obituary, close email accounts, go through his tools in the garage. What I know now was that the need to organize — to feel useful —was part of my grieving process, even if I didn’t look at it that way at the time. Here are some guidelines that might be helpful in navigating the experience.

Give yourself plenty of time to process

When kids lose a parent, it can just shatter their world. But as an adult, the impact of your parent’s death might not be immediately clear to you. The days after losing your mom or dad can become a complete blur. There are funeral arrangements to be made, family members to call, food deliveries from kind neighbors to accept—and while a to-do list might help you get through the hours, eventually things will slow down and you might find yourself suddenly struck by the fact that this person who has been in your life since the very beginning is gone.

Allowing that feeling to evolve, and to really understand the size and shape of your sorrow, can be painful. But if it helps: “Try to remember that grief is often a reflection of how great the loss is,” says psychotherapist Toni Coleman, LCSW, CMC. Put another way: Your pain is a reflection of great love. (Related: Lifting the Weight: On Grieving at the Gym.)

Get support from people who have been there

When my dad died, I remember feeling like no one understood what I was going through, with the exception of my sister—and even our grief wasn’t totally in sync. I couldn’t find comfort in my friends, or in my partner. “How could they possibly understand?” I remember thinking. I cried constantly.

But eventually, a colleague referred me to a support group for 20-somethings who had lost their parents. I was in a club with people who could truly empathize with my experience. While it didn’t make me miss my father any less, it did help me to see my heartache—the fact that he wouldn’t walk me down the aisle, or send me silly text messages, or make me Spotify playlists—through a wider lens, and also to feel understood. Their empathy gave me the strength I needed to get through tough days. I had a support network of people who understood what Father’s Day feels like when your father is gone.

Have a plan for emotionally-charged days

The first year after my father died, I went home for the holidays as usual—and it was a mistake. That might not be true for everyone. Maybe it will help you to have your normal family traditions in place, as a way of honoring your lost parent and even commemorating happier times. But without our dad, we were just too sad to pick up old traditions. So the year after that, we created new ones, where we travel over the holidays, but still celebrate him with a toast or family stories.

The thing that has helped the most, though, has been having a plan for the days I know will be especially intense. You may want to decide that on your mother’s birthday, or on Mother’s Day, you’re going to bake her favorite recipe, or that on the Fourth of July, when your dad was king of the grill, you’ll have a beer on his behalf.

“There is a lot of room between doing something totally different and celebrating the holidays in the usual family tradition,” says Coleman. For families who are struggling to get on the same page, she recommends that each family member come up with a ritual or tradition that is important to them and include it as part of that day. It sometimes helps to mix old traditions and new (going out for Thanksgiving instead of cooking, for example). “In fact, seeing this holiday as the beginning of a new tradition can help with the process of moving on to a new normal,” Coleman adds.

Find ways to keep your parent’s presence in your life

In the days after my dad’s death, one of the very first things I did was make audio recordings of all the messages he had left on my phone. I pulled out photos of him and put them in a giant bowl on my desk so I could sift through them whenever I felt like it. Having those pictures and his voice around helped me feel like he was still present in my life. Telling stories about him and noting movies or foods he would have really liked is another way he is active in my mind, every single day. (Related: 6 Grieving Rituals That Can Help You Heal.)

You may find that other people don’t know how to talk to you after you’ve lost parent—it can help to tell them. I wanted to share my dad’s life, even with friends who had never met him, because it felt like adding more of him back into the world. You will find what works for you. But don’t shy away from bringing their memory up.

Looking through photos, listening to voicemails, and watching family videos are completely normal in the aftermath of a loss, Coleman says. Leaving his or her chair vacant around the table is another way some families create space for a parent’s memory. “These are all ways we hold the person in our hearts and keep their memory alive, which is very important to those who are grieving,” she says.

Forgive yourself for feeling a bit better

For most of us, the reality is: You will laugh again. You will have a really great Christmas morning. Your whole birthday will go by without a breakdown over the absence of your parent. Grief is a process, and one part of it is the intensity of your grief subsiding. In my experience, there will be moments where all of a sudden the sadness comes rushing up all over again and knocks you down like a wave. As time goes on, for me, these moments have become fewer and farther between.

Losing a parent may not be something that you ever truly “get over”— I know I haven’t. But, from my experience, it is a loss that becomes easier to accept. And, says Coleman: “When you are ready to move on, you will.”

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