The death of a spouse is considered the single most stressful life event. Sadly, it’s one our parents are eventually going to experience. But there are ways we can help ease the pain and grief a surviving parent will naturally experience. Here are some of the ways that Hutch, director of spiritual care at The Goodman Group, recommends helping a parent cope with their loss.
Grieving is Natural
Not only is grieving a natural process, but it's also important to understand that it's normal and even necessary. “Grief is built into us," Hutch explains. "We're sort of created to grieve like we're created to love, and that’s okay.” The first step, then, is to accept that your parent is going to grieve, that it’s the natural, built-in response to their loss, and that it’s important to let them have the space to do so.
Often, people think that avoiding or ignoring a powerful emotion like grief is the best way to go. But that’s a myth according to Hutch. “We can't ignore it. We've got to let grief work in our parents,” he says, adding “Really, grief is just necessary.”
In fact, trying to remove physical reminders of a loved one’s loss is not recommended, even though family members frequently think that will be helpful: “Oh, let’s put Mom’s favorite vase away and let’s get rid of her clothes, so Dad doesn’t have to see anything of Mom’s,” Hutch cites as an example. Instead, he recommends that you “leave things as they are for weeks, months, even a year or more until Dad is ready to deal with that.”
Grief Can Manifest in Many Ways
Grieving is also a highly individual process that can be expressed in many different ways. Sometimes it’s through crying, sometimes through anger. A grieving parent may become distant and not want to talk to anyone. At other times, that same parent may want to pour their heart out. As an adult child, it’s important to let your parent’s grief unfold in its own unique way. That means being prepared for seeing and experiencing your parent in ways that you may not have in the past.
For example, you may know your mom or dad as an exceptionally strong person who’s always been able to get through anything in life. But suddenly, you’re “not prepared for this strong man or this strong woman in the house to be crying and to be, maybe even, really incapacitated,” Hutch says. In that case, it’s really important to let go of any expectations about your parent and how they might grieve. Instead, be open to what they’re experiencing and expressing and know that sometimes that might feel uncomfortable to you, but it’s necessary for them.
Know Your Parent’s Practical Concerns
It’s not unusual in the face of loss for a person to focus on practical matters. “People worry about these things: like who’s going to water the flowers, who’s going to bring the cat in,” Hutch says.
This is a form of coping and is often an area where you can actively help your grieving parent. Find out what some of those day-to-day tasks are that the deceased parent was responsible for, and see if you can help fill that gap. Asking questions like “What kinds of things did mom do for both of you that we can start doing?” and “Do you have a list of people that you and mom send Christmas cards to?” can be very helpful, according to Hutch. “It’s tangible, helpful stuff that you can do,” he says. And that can be reassuring for you both.
Sometimes the Best Conversation…Is No Conversation
One inclination family members have is to talk about the loved one who has passed, about the good times, about celebrating their life. That is often very healing – it’s the very basis of many of our memorial rituals. Then there are times when there really are no words.
Hutch uses a beautiful phrase to describe it. “It’s a ministry of presence,” he says. “It’s just being there. For long periods of time, you may sit silently with your parent. There may be uncomfortable periods of time where nothing is said, but we can't fix that person. And it's so natural for us as humans to want to fix that person and just make them feel better and help them get over this. But there isn't anything that you can say to someone who has lost a husband or wife that they’ve been married to for 60 years. So you just let them work through it. It really is, as I said, a ministry of presence. You're just there.”
Let Yourself Grieve
Finally, it’s not only your parent who’s going through a grieving process. It’s you, too. In your desire to help mom or dad through their grief, don’t make the mistake of ignoring or downplaying your own feelings. It’s as important to let yourself grieve as it is to be there for your parent. As Hutch points out, “It's extremely important that caregivers and family members allow themselves time to grieve, as well. Because they can pour everything they've got into their mom or dad and they forget about themselves. Then years later, maybe their dog dies and they fall apart; they can fall into depression because they never dealt with that loss years ago.”
Coping with grief – your own and that of a parent – is a challenging process. Yet, it’s a natural one, one that we’re built to experience and survive. With openness and respect for how that process can unfold, you and your parent can help each other bear your mutual loss and oftentimes become closer for the shared experience.