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Losing a Parent Navigating Grief in Adulthood

Updated: Jun 4, 2022

The death of a parent can be one of the most significant losses in life. Whatever your relationship was like with them, whether it was expected or not, or if you have siblings to share it with… grief can feel like a crushing monster. The journey through grief is different for everyone, but here is a good starting place.

Disclaimer: some of this discussion might be triggering if you have experienced such a loss. Proceed with caution.

Give Yourself Some Time

Grief doesn’t abide by a timeline. It might come and go in waves. It might surprise you during the day or visit you at night while you are winding down. Most of all, give it some space. Allow yourself to feel your feelings, whatever they are. Avoiding the pain of loss only lets it grow. Be kind to yourself if it seems like you are struggling with it after you’ve gone back to work or school. In some ways you will heal and in other ways you will carry your loss with you. And that’s okay.

Sometimes it is helpful to think about grief like a ball that sits inside of a box that represents your life. On one wall of that box there is a pain button. At first, grief can be a large ball that takes up much of the space in the box. As you move around in life, the ball bounces around. When the grief ball is big, it hits the walls all the time (and hits the pain button a lot, too). Over time, the box grows… your life gets bigger than your grief. The ball keeps bouncing around in there, but with so much space it doesn’t hit the wall as much. It hits the pain button less and less. Grief doesn’t go away, but we do learn to grow around it.

Your Feelings Are Valid

There is no right way to feel and you may find that you have several conflicting emotions. Relationships are complicated and more than one thing can be true. Maybe you feel numb, sad, guilty, angry, shocked, or something else. Maybe you feel relief that a long illness is over. Maybe you feel disappointed about the future moments that your parent will miss. You could feel overwhelmed if you are handling your parent’s estate. Take the emotions as they come and honor them. It will take time to process the end of the past with your parent and what lies ahead without them.

Find a Way to Talk About It

Therapy is a great place to start, of course. But there are other ways to seek support. Find a grief group in-person or online. Better yet, find one for loss of a parent. Talk to friends who have been there. It can help to normalize the experience and you might find it helpful to offer your understanding to someone else.

Your Body Keeps The Score

You may find that you feel unwell, especially in the early days after a significant loss. It is common to have changes in your sleep and appetite or experience headaches, stomachaches, or irritability. It is normal to fall out of healthy routines like getting to the gym or cooking a healthy meal, at least for a little while. Do the best you can and give your body rest when it needs it. Routines can be restarted later. In the meantime, try to do what you can to care for yourself.

  • Take a walk outside, alone or with a friend.

  • Drink some water.

  • Take a nap.

  • Eat a snack.

  • Watch a TV show that you’ve seen before.

  • Decline social invitations if it’s too much.

  • Aim for moderation if you choose to drink.

  • Pick up a hobby that you enjoy, even if it’s been a while.

  • Read a book or magazine.

The Grief Math

It is very common to start calculating how long it has been since you lost your parent. This might look like “it’s been a month since my mom died,” or maybe “this is the first time I’ve gone fishing without my dad.” There are a lot of firsts coming. This is your mind’s way of processing loss and it seems like everyone does it. Sometimes grief math makes you feel worse because it marks how long you have been in pain. Other times it feels like progress because you have made it through. As you get some distance from the loss, you will find that you count by longer intervals (how many anniversaries instead of how many weeks) and maybe you calculate only for big occasions (“how old would you have been on your birthday this year?”).

Memorialize Them

Take some time to flip through old photo albums if you have them. Spend time among their most treasured possessions and take your time to get rid of items you wish to part with. You may have to set aside time to do some of this when you are ready.

Find a way to honor your parent. Maybe arrange a memorial fund with an organization they cared about or plant their favorite flower in your garden. You’ll know the right way to honor them when it is time.

Accept the Kindness of Others

Your friends and family may want to offer you support and may not know how. Some people will love you with flowers and casseroles while others may offer to walk your dog, wash a load of laundry, or babysit so you can run some errands. Let them lift a burden for you if they can, just for a little while.

Check In With Yourself

With all that being said, sometimes grief takes more than its share of attention or hangs around longer than it is meaningful. Seek help from a therapist if this is the case. Talk with your doctor if you notice ongoing physical changes that don’t seem to resolve after 3 months or longer. And always, always seek help from a crisis line or emergency room if your grief begins to feel like hopelessness or you have thoughts of harming yourself. You are never alone, even if it might feel that way for a moment.

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