How Losing A Parent Affects Relationships, And What To Do
Updated November 26, 2021
Medically Reviewed By: Karen Devlin, LPC
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:
- the posterior cingulated cortex – has many functions but plays a role in pain and episodic memory retrieval
- medial/superior frontal gyrus – thought to contribute to higher cognitive functions and working memory
- cerebellum – coordinates eye movements, muscle memory, and motor skills
When the word or the picture showed up separately, other distinct areas were highlighted.
The study concluded that grief affects:
- episodic memory retrieval
- processing familiar faces
- visual imagery
- autonomic regulation
- coordination of the above functions
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:
- onslaught of flashbacks
- trouble sleeping
- unusual emotional responses
- heightened emotions
- mood swings
- suicidal thoughts
- general disinterest
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.
- Get curious. Figure out why you feel so negatively about this person/situation/event. What are the specific reasons for your thoughts and feelings about it? Write it down. It can be in a paragraph or a list.
- Now remove yourself from the equation. Pretend you’re an outsider looking at the situation as objectively as possible. Is the situation permanent, or can it be changed? Is it personal to you or not specific at all? If some of the negative observations you made seem accurate, what’s positive about the situation? List every positive opportunity or fact about the situation that you can, no matter how small.
- Reframe your original thinking. Restate the situation as accurately as possible. Remove all distorted language that includes exaggeration or negativity bias. Include only facts and objective observations as much as possible.
- Think about the situation. Brainstorm every possible choice, option, and direction this situation could take. Note things that are out of your control and in your control that could be possible. List the most wildly optimistic options as well as the most depressing ones.
- Review the list. Choose the best possible choice or outcome that you can allow yourself to believe. If it has a chance of coming true and it’s the best outcome you can see happening, go with that one.
- Ask yourself: How can I reorient my choices, decision, or life toward increasing the odds of that positive outcome coming true? Then, create a list of all the actions, strategies, and mindset approaches you can think of to make that positive outcome more likely. Jot down everything that pops into your head, even if it sounds crazy. (Examples: visualization, affirmations, talking to someone you trust, etc.)
- Commit a few of the actions you listed above. Then, decide that you’ll do your best to create a positive outcome you can believe in no matter what.
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:
- spend time with family and friends (play board games, go for a walk, etc.)
- laugh (go to a comedy event or stream one)
- learn a new skill
- clean up (having a tidy space can act as both physical exercise and a stress reliever)
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:
- write 3-pages straight
- avoid taking breaks
- do it in the morning (the sooner, the better)
- keep it private
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:
- going for a walk around your neighborhood
- dance party in the kitchen
- taking a bath or shower
- light candles
- get yourself flowers
- do a speed cleaning session
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:
- take up yoga, tai chi or qigong
- maintain a healthy diet
- follow good sleep hygiene
- get moving
- monitor your health
- seek support from social groups
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.
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