Coping with the Death of a Parent

Help and advice on how to deal with the grief of losing a parent

Last updated: 29 November 2016

Losing a parent is something that most of us will have to go through at some point in our life. Although we know that it will happen eventually, nothing can quite prepare you for the loss of a parent.

The pain of losing a parent

It is important to remember that there is no ‘right’ way to deal with the grief of losing a parent. As you try to cope with bereavement you will have many different powerful emotions that may not make sense to you at the time. You may experience:

  • Emptiness or numbness and an inability to cry. This isn’t a sign of being ‘cold’ or not loving your parent enough. Deep down, you may be struggling to understand what has happened or trying to avoid feeling overwhelmed by too many emotions.
  • Deep sadness and despair. You will probably feel as if nothing will be okay again and you’ll never learn to live with this loss.
  • Being unable to sleep, or sleeping badly.
  • Disruptions to your usual eating habits. This may be a loss of appetite, or a strong desire to comfort eat.
  • Feeling like a child again, feeling vulnerable, scared and alone. Losing a parent may make you feel young and helpless again, as you struggle to accept that such an important person in your life is no longer there.
  • Strained relationships with other family members. Family dynamics will undergo massive changes after the loss of a parent. Be aware that arguments may happen, as everyone will be experiencing overwhelming emotions that they are struggling to express.

Through the initial stages of grief you may realise that nothing can, or should, fill the space left in your life. A parent is irreplaceable and although the grief will stay, it will change and become more manageable in time.

Losing a parent at a young age

Most people expect their parents to live until they are old and retired, but sadly this is not always the case. If your parent passed away at a relatively young age, you may be experiencing shock at the suddenness of their passing. You may have thought that you had many years left together before you would have to deal with losing them and part of the grieving process will be realising that is no longer the case.

You may have lost your parent while you were still a child. You may find that you still miss them every day, and it is common to feel that way for a long time – there is no time limit on grief. As you grow older you may come to think about your parent in new ways. You may experience renewed feelings of grief, even after many years. This is completely normal as you begin to understand your loss more fully and re-examine how it affected you.

Losing an elderly parent

Although losing a parent at a young age might be a shock, the truth is that no matter how old your parent was, you were probably not emotionally prepared for them passing away. People who have never lost a parent may assume that if they were old, the grief is somehow lessened. They may say things like, “They had a good innings” or “It was just her time.” These sayings may be of little comfort. We are always our parents’ children and you will likely still grieve intensely, no matter how old they were.

You may have been aware for a while that your parent’s health was failing. Again, this is no guarantee that you will feel less pain. There may have been a small part of you still hoping that they would be fine and have many more years with you.

If they were seriously ill and possibly in pain, you may find yourself experiencing feelings of relief, especially if it was a long illness. Relief is a natural emotion to have in these circumstances. You may feel guilty for feeling relieved, but be kind to yourself and remember that grief comes with many different emotions that you cannot control.

Complicated relationships

While some people have good relationships with their parents, many are not close to their parents or struggle to get along with them. You may be estranged from them completely and have not seen them in many years.

Many families have their arguments and disagreements, but when a parent passes away, you might find that these complicated relationships make it difficult to understand your emotions. You might not know how to feel, especially if a parent has been absent from your life for a very long time.

You might have feelings of regret, wishing that you hadn’t had that last argument, or that you’d talked about your problems more. You may feel guilty, or angry that they passed away before you could make things right. These emotions are all part of grieving as you try to understand what has happened and what it means.

Everyone’s grief is different and your difficult relationship with your parent may affect how you experience grief. If there are certain issues or regrets that you keep thinking about over and over again, it might help to talk to a therapist or counsellor. They will be able to help you work through what you are feeling and, by understanding and expressing any issues, you should be able to move forwards and grieve in a healthier way. Contact a bereavement support organisation to find support groups and counsellors near you.

Supporting a grieving parent

Losing one parent sometimes means that your other parent is grieving the loss of their partner. You may need to offer them support through their bereavement, both practically and emotionally. If possible, you may want to stay with them for a while to help them arrange the funeral. You might both find it comforting to be together during this time.

You may feel as though roles are being reversed, with you looking after your parent. This might feel strange, but your help will be greatly appreciated as they begin to face living without their partner. However, respect that they will probably still want to make decisions for themselves and they might feel the need to remain somewhat independent during this time.

Managing the estate

When a parent passes away there are many practical and legal issues to think about, which can be a challenge while you are still grieving. In the days and weeks following their passing, you may be required to think about managing their estate.

This can involve acting out the wishes of a will if they had one, handing out any inheritance and dealing with any debts they might have had. Read more about managing an estate for advice on carrying out these important duties.

Moving towards healing

In many ways you will never ‘get over’ the loss of a parent. A parent is often one of the most important people in a person’s life and you will always be who you are because of them. You will always miss them, but you will eventually be able to move towards a way of living where you are not overwhelmed by your grief.

There are some practical ways to cope with grief that may help you heal following this loss. These include:

  • Taking care of your physical health. Try to eat and sleep well if you can. Avoid alcohol and drug abuse, as this will make you feel worse in the long term.
  • Being involved in arranging the funeral. Many people find that being involved in funeral arrangements helps them say goodbye to their parent and come to terms with what is happening.
  • Finding a way to express your emotions. Keeping feelings bottled up only delays dealing with them and expressing them in a healthy way can make you feel better. Try writing a diary or talking to a trusted friend.
  • Spending time with close family members. Although you may want to be alone, and that is fine, some people find being surrounded by family very comforting. You can support each other and share memories of your loved one.

If you are struggling to cope with the loss of a parent, or simply need help and advice, contact a bereavement support organisation.