Grief after the death of a parent is painful and sometimes relenting. But, unfortunately, most people will lose a parent figure in their lifetime.
That said, it doesn't affect everyone the same way. For those who had time to prepare and say goodbye, it might not be as hard as for the people who lost a parent in their childhood or whose parent's death was unexpected.
Some studies suggest unreleased grief can cause physical health problems. In other words, you can't ignore the grief. It must be felt and dealt with. But, of course, that's easier said than done.
This article covers what happens after the loss of a parent in our psyches, how that affects other relationships, and what you can do to work through the grief so that you can show up in your relationships.
First, let's talk about what happens psychologically.
The Stages Of Grief
You're probably already familiar with the five stages of grief created by psychiatrist Elisabeth Kübler-Ross. The stages of grief were first used to describe the reaction of a patient who receives a serious diagnosis. It has since been expanded to include family members who also receive the news of a terminally ill family member or their reaction after a loss, like death.
The stages are:
The parent-child relationship is a strong one. Parents or guardians are the first people we get to know when we're growing up. Therefore, losing one's parent can be one of the hardest forms of grief to overcome.
One study of parents who lost a child to cancer found that some parents hadn't processed their grief four to nine years later. In addition, the parents who hadn't worked through their grief were more likely to have anxiety, depression, and low life satisfaction.
While it can be argued that the loss of a child is different than the loss of a parent, they're both hard, personal losses. The study highlights that ignoring your grief will not make you feel better. Instead, it makes life more miserable.
Depression doesn't only affect us. It affects everyone around us. Depression can lead to a more negative outlook on life, less motivation to get up in the morning or go about daily life, and less social interaction. That hurts relationships. When efforts to help are met with indifference, it can put a rift in the relationship.
When someone gets stuck on one phase in the five stages of grief, they will stay in that phase until they choose to move past it. That's not to say it's easy. Depression can be a paralyzing disorder. Later on, we'll go over exercises that can help you move to the next phase.
So what's going on in a grieving person's head?
A study in The American Journal of Psychiatry discovered that many areas are activated while grieving a loved one. First, participants were shown pictures, sometimes of strangers and sometimes of the deceased person. Then, it was paired with a word that either had to do with the deceased person or a neutral word.
They found that grief targets a large number of regions of the brain. And the regions depended on whether the word, picture, or both related to the deceased.
Regions activated when the word and picture were paired:
When the word or the picture showed up separately, other distinct areas were highlighted.
The study concluded that grief affects:
This was a small study, so it needs to be followed up with larger studies. It also appears obvious that looking at a deceased loved one would light up parts of the brain that process familiar faces. The study also mentioned that all or most participants had moments where they broke down and were actually in states of grief.
It shows that grief is a very internal process. Losing one's parent means going through memories and understanding their absence. Since a lot is going on inside, be proactive about asking for alone time and talking about your feelings. Know that you don't have to go through this alone. A lot is going on inside that you may have to work through alone, but there are people in your life who want to be there to support you. Let them in.
When trauma is involved in the loss of a parent, it can result in PTSD (post-traumatic stress disorder).
Symptoms of PTSD include:
If you or someone you know is experiencing suicidal thoughts, help is available. The National Suicide Prevention Lifeline can be reached at 1-800-273-8255 and is available 24/7, or you can text the word “HOME” to 741741 to reach the Crisis Text Line.
The cliché phrase: "I see it every time I close my eyes" can be a reality for those with PTSD. And can have consequences across all areas of life. But, especially for children, trauma can negatively affect the outcome of their life. For example, childhood trauma is linked to doing worse in school and even dropping out.
As the study in The American Journal of Psychiatry mentioned, the part of the brain that coordinates eye movement is activated during grief. Thus, for trauma victims, the place they were looking when the accident occurred can trigger a stress response.
Brain Spotting Therapy can offer relief. It's a newer form of therapy that uses the gaze to work through grief. The results can be fast, and it's done with a licensed therapist.
Another option is to do the following exercise, found in The Bliss Experiment by Sean Meshorer. It has two parts.
In the context of trauma, this exercise will relieve some of the helplessness that can come with trauma. It's impossible to bring a deceased person back to life, but it is possible to find peace in their absence. Your positive outcome might be as simple as wanting to feel less sad when you think about them or be more supportive of other grieving family members.
Choosing to focus on the positive possibilities and actions to get there will make you feel more empowered. It gives you a plan so that you won't feel stuck anymore. It also helps you recognize negative thought patterns that can spiral you into depression.
More Exercises For Healing
Trauma is a loaded term. But, even if you don't feel like you experienced trauma after the death of a parent, the exercise above can be helpful. We might know we need to work through our grief but not know-how. The exercise above and the ones you're about to learn will give you the framework you need to deal with your grief.
So why is it important to work through grief? Popular culture has an "acceptable" amount of time for grieving. Often, we're expected to pick ourselves up and move on before we're ready. So we put on a brave face and pretend we're not feeling anything.
This mentality of pretending everything okay can be harmful to us and our close relationships. If you want to heal, you have to face the grief.
Feel It Out
While you don't want to smother your grief, that doesn't mean you have to grieve 24/7. It's okay to take a break from distractions when you're feeling overwhelmed. Be as mindful as possible during this time to know when you need to find a distraction and when you need to sit with your grief.
Sitting with your grief is exactly like it sounds. Take some time, free from distractions, and process it. You can do so with someone you trust or alone. Allow yourself to cry if you need to. It isn't comfortable, but it's worth it. Then, when the wave passes, you can go back to distraction mode if that feels most comfortable.
Here's a list of healthy distractions:
Be sure to sprinkle in moments of grief between distractions. If you're not giving yourself the chance to grieve, talk to someone about it. You can see a therapist or lean on a trusted friend for relief.
Sometimes our thoughts aren't as coherent as we think they are. We often think in pictures, so the act of turning those images into sentences can be a healing practice. Use these two journal prompts to put your feelings into words.
Journal Prompt #1
Julia Cameron, the author of The Artist's Way, has an exercise she likes to call Morning Pages. It's a simple journaling exercise she tells her students to do every day. She came up with it to bypass her prefrontal cortex and write without judging herself as much, but it isn't only for writers.
People of all backgrounds and careers have used morning pages to understand their thought patterns, relieve stress, and not allow those thoughts to control their day. It's a simple process that anyone can do. All you need is a journal and a pen. If all you have are scraps of paper, that can work too.
Here are the guidelines:
That's it! It doesn't matter what you write about. You can vent about your feelings, write down your to-do list, add affirmations, or anything you want. If you want to sprinkle in some positivity, you can write 3-5 things you're grateful for.
They are called morning pages for a reason, but if you for some reason feel more inclined to write in the evening, do that. You can also look back every few weeks and read what you wrote. You'll be able to notice any negative beliefs that keep popping up and see how much progress you've made.
Journal Prompt #2
Whether or not you got a chance to say goodbye to your parent, there might still be things you wish you'd said.
Write a letter to them and say everything you wanted to say but didn't get a chance to. If you want, you might choose to bury the letter with them or leave it at their grave. You could also mail it to their old address or put it away in a drawer. Whatever feels best to you.
This letter doesn't have to be perfect. If you forgot to add something, you could always write a second letter. It'll give you a sense of closure and put you closer to moving on.
Maximize On Self Care
Especially for primary caretakers, self-care goes on the back burner during a parent's decline. That can lead to bills and chores piling up. Grief, combined with stress, can be a shaky combination. That's why it's so important to put yourself first during this time.
Self-care might sound selfish, but it isn't. Think of it this way: when you take care of yourself, you'll be in a better mental and emotional place to be there for other people. In addition, when you're in a better mental state, you'll be less likely to be distant in other relationships with people who need you.
During a loss, we can forget about the people who are still right in front of us. We're so focused on the losses that we miss out on them. Absentmindedly doing chores and running errands for other people doesn't count. Self-care makes you more receptive and present to the other people in your life. If you're having trouble thinking of what self-care means to you, try the exercise below.
Make A Joy List
For givers and people who default to taking care of other people, they may not know how to take care of themselves. In this case, make a list of the things that make you happy. It can be as little as cloud gazing or as big as taking a weekend vacation.
Use the joy list to incorporate moments of joy and self-care into your everyday life. That means picking at least one item off the list each day. Feel free to repeat certain items on the list as often as you need to. For example, if you only have time to read for 30 minutes during the week and that's on your joy list, then do that.
Here's a list of self-care rituals that don't take much time:
Don't make the excuse that you don't have enough time to take care of yourself. Make the time. Your joy list might look very different from everyone else's. As long as the practices are safe and not self-deprecating, do as many of them as you can.
An article from Harvard Health Publishing also suggests these activities based on a study of reducing stress in grieving people:
When in doubt, reach out to close friends and family or a therapist for guidance. Losing one's parent is life-changing, but it doesn't have to stay that way. Take as much time as you need to grieve and be open to receiving help. Pretending it isn't real won't make the grief go away. On the contrary, it'll hang around longer the more you fight it.
Frequently Asked Questions (FAQs):
How Do You Deal With The Death Of A Parent?
The death of a parent is an extremely challenging situation, but there are ways anybody can learn to manage and handle their grief. While losing a loved one can be overpowering, the grief of losing a loved one recognizes that everything you feel is completely valid. Sadness is not the only emotion to take over when living through a parent’s death. Numbness is common, and so is a relief that they may no longer be in pain. Whatever you are feeling, it’s important to accept your emotions. Allow yourself to feel your emotions instead of bottling them up inside, as denying your emotions often makes the path to healing longer and more difficult. Ensure you take care of your well-being and get yourself enough food, as well as try to sleep. Share memories with loved ones and even go so far as to do something in their memory to help with the grief of losing them.
How Does The Death Of A Parent Affect You?
Working through the death of a parent can affect a person in a number of different ways. It can affect a person both psychologically and physically. The finality of death, especially sudden death, can leave a person confused, angry, frustrated, numb, and more. These emotions can be extremely overwhelming and lead a person not to eat or sleep, which can seriously impact their mental and physical well-being. A father’s death or a mother’s death can affect people differently, but grief support groups can offer tips and advice to anybody coming to terms with a deceased parent’s memory.
How Long Do The Stages Of Grief Last?
There is no single set timetable for how long grief is supposed to last in a person. A person may begin to feel better in a matter of weeks, or it may take years to come to terms with something that happened truly. A father’s death or mother’s death can take longer to overcome, though not everybody responds to grief in the same way. There are five main stages of grief: denial, anger, bargaining, depression, and acceptance. Not everybody will go through all of these stages, and the order won’t necessarily be experienced the same way. If you have experienced a parent’s death or another grief-inducing situation, consider reaching out to a grief support group where strategies such as keeping a grief journal and more can be learned.
How Do You Sleep After Losing A Loved One?
Insomnia is a very common symptom of grief, but rest assured knowing there are strategies anybody can use to sleep after a parent’s death or sudden death in the family. First things first, try getting more physical activity during the day, if possible, to tire your body out. Try to avoid caffeine and create a sleep sanctuary where you can relax your mind and body as much as possible. As outlined in grief support groups, keeping a grief journal is a helpful way of externalizing thoughts and stories on your mind. By disconnecting from these thoughts before bed, a person can learn to clear their mind before sleep. The finality of death and pain, grief, and other emotions that can happen after a sudden death have the potential to be overwhelming. Focus first on seeking out a grief support group or therapist if you have serious sleep or appetite issues following a parent’s death or another grief-inducing situation.
How Do I Accept The Death Of A Loved One?
Coming to terms with a deceased parent’s memory is challenging, especially if a remaining parent works through the pain, grief, and other emotions. Several helpful tips for working through grief are to allow yourself time to mourn, focus on how the person impacted your life, continue their legacy, continue to speak about how much they were loved, and know when to get help for yourself and a remaining parent when the emotions become too much to handle on your own. Accepting the death of a loved one is a long process, but acceptance is possible with enough time.