Coping with the death of a parent can be one of the most challenging experiences a person faces during their lifetime. While sadness, anger, disbelief, confusion, and disorientation are all a natural part of the grieving process, these feelings can overwhelm us and lead to anxiety and depression. With the right coping skills and help from a grief counselor or therapist, many people process grief in a healthy way.
8 Ways to Cope After Losing a Parent
Although the experience of grief is extremely individualized, there are ways to change your thinking and behaviors to help cope with grief and loss, especially with the death of a parent. Some of the most helpful ways of dealing with the death of a parent involve finding the balance between listening to your feelings and pushing outside of your comfort zone.
Here are eight healthy ways to cope with the loss of a parent:
1. Follow Your Instincts
So many people struggle with the process of grief and loss because they feel like they are doing it incorrectly. They worry that their feelings are “wrong” and other people would handle the situation differently. Other people may feel pressure to hold back their emotions and push them down. These people may think they need to be strong, stoic, and “the rock” for others.
It is always problematic when a person acts in disingenuous or inauthentic ways. Instead, a person should focus on attending to their instincts and identifying their feelings regarding the situation. The grief will guide the way. Your job is to listen.1
2. Experience the Pain
Loss hurts, but not everyone will experience the hurt the same way at the same time. In fact, two siblings could have completely different experiences following the death of a parent.
Whatever you’re feeling, you should feel comfortable and confident letting it out. If you are sad, you can cry. If you are angry, you should feel free to yell into a pillow or while you’re driving the car. If you are confused, let yourself be confused.2
Failing to express your feelings only serves to keep the emotions bottled up, and instead of resolving over time, they tend to fester and grow. Letting out some sadness, confusion, frustration, and shame in controlled ways now is always preferable to more intense emotions coming out later.
3. Tell Others What You Need
After a loss, you will need the support of family and friends to comfort you and assist you through this process.1 Being around people and discussing the loss can help you understand and accept the situation more readily. People don’t always know what to say to someone who has lost a parent, so it’s OK to be clear and let them know what you need, especially if they’re not being helpful.
When a loved one dies, many people will offer assistance as a formality, but you should accept as many offers as possible to reduce the stress and weight on yourself.
Seek out the support of others by:
- Meeting friends and loved ones for meals or gatherings
- Calling, texting, and messaging supports for comfort
- Asking people to help complete overwhelming or confusing tasks, like issues related to wills and insurance policies
- Looking for assistance with regular chores and responsibilities that have become a struggle to accomplish
- Accepting offers to prepare meals or run errands
Along the way, recognize that you will need time to yourself, and telling people that you would prefer to be alone that day is fine. Just be sure to reschedule for the near future.
4. Look After Your Physical Health
No matter the situation, stress grows when you don’t tend to your physical health needs. As physical health fades, maintaining your mental health will be more challenging.
To prioritize your mental health:1
- Eat healthy foods
- Get plenty of rest
You may fall into poor patterns of eating and sleeping too much or too little, so always aim for moderation. Speaking of moderation, you should avoid excessive substance abuse. Drinking alcohol, overusing prescription drugs, or using illicit drugs may seem to offer a quick fix to feelings of grief, but in the long-term, they only compound the problem.
5. Find Ways to Remember & Celebrate Your Parent
Birthdays, holidays, and death anniversaries tend to be painful days in the years after a parent dies; however, you can take control of things like the anniversary effect by finding ways to remember and celebrate your parents.
You can honor your parent by:
- Prepare their favorite meal on their birthday
- Plant a tree or flower in their memory
- Donate your time or money to a cause they believed in
- Visit their favorite destination
- Share memorable stories
- Spend time engaging in their favorite hobby or activity
- Listen to a song or watch a movie that reminds you of them
These moments may bring about sadness, but that’s expected. Permit yourself some time to feel however you need to before shifting the focus back to positive remembrance.1
6. Reinvest Your Emotional Energy
Grief takes time, energy, and effort. When the symptoms of grief begin to alleviate, people find themselves unsure how to spend their resources.
This point is pivotal in grief and loss because reinvesting your emotional energy for something productive and positive can result in tremendous growth. On the other hand, falling into bad habits at this point could perpetuate grief and complicate the situation.
Since there is no singular way to reinvest your energy, you can:
- Work to strengthen old or establish new friendships
- Set out to complete a home project
- Spend time volunteering or advocating for an important cause
- Study a new language or take a class
7. Prepare for Emotions to Re-emerge
The experience of grief and loss is not linear. You could notice several symptoms presenting, going away, and then returning. Re-emerging emotions does not mean that you are doing something wrong. It only means that there was some unresolved aspect of that feeling that needs more attention.
8. Attend a Grief Support Group
Although no one will know exactly what you are going through, a support group can be a great way to come together with others who have encountered a loss. Attending a support group can remind you that the experiences of grief and loss are universal. They can help you feel connected to others and yourself, and remind you that you are not alone in your grief.
How Long Does Grief Usually Last After the Death of a Parent?
Experts find that symptoms related to grief and loss tend to peak and begin remitting around six months after the loss occurs.3 Determining how long grief usually lasts after the death of a parent is a complicated number to predict, though. Some people will note their grief rapidly improving after the six-month point, and others will see their grief drag on for many months. Most people will report symptoms that completely resolve within the first year or two after their parent’s death.3
When Grief Becomes Depression
Depression is a normal part of the grieving process, but major depressive disorder is something different from grief. Since depression often looks like grief and grief often looks like depression, it can be challenging to know when a person’s reaction to grief becomes a mental health disorder.
To differentiate between the grief vs. depression, consider the following:3
- Unwanted feelings come and go with less intensity and duration over time
- The primary feeling is emptiness
- Self-esteem and self-worth are normally unchanged
- Thoughts of death and suicide normally involve a strong desire to be with the parent
- Mood and thoughts of the future are constantly negative
- The primary feeling is depression, while being unable to experience pleasure or happiness
- Self-esteem sinks as feelings of worthlessness rise
- Suicidal thoughts and gestures are more connected to the person and not their parent
Signs To Seek Professional Help
If someone is confused about their feelings or is experiencing a depressive disorder, they should seek a consultation from the mental health professional immediately. For example, seek help if you experience signs of complicated grief or persistent complex bereavement disorder.
Signs of complicated grief are:
- Inhibited grief, marked by very little reaction to the death
- Delayed grief, which occurs when typical grief symptoms begin much later than expected
- Chronic grief, where intense symptoms last more than two years
- Distorted grief, marked by extremely strong or unusual symptoms of grief
- Intense sorrow and longing for the deceased parent
- Avoidance of reminders associated with the loss
- Identity and role confusion
- Emotionally numbness
- Lack of desire to pursue new interests
- Difficulty trusting
- Bitterness or anger about the loss
- Difficulty maintaining current or investing in relationships
- Feeling that life is meaningless since the loss
- Feelings of shock or confusion (sometimes called grief brain)
Signs of persistent complex bereavement disorder are:
- Preparing meals or setting places at the table for the deceased person
- Saying that there’s no reason to live without them
- Saying they are unsure who they are now that the loved one has died
- Appearing very angry, irritable, and aggressive
- Talking about the loved one like they’re still alive
- Refusing to complete tasks involved with the death
- Isolating from friends, family, or meaningful activities
Who Should Consult For Help?
Most people will not require professional treatment following the loss of a parent, but about 15% to 30% of people will experience complex grief reactions.3 Whether the feelings stem from grief or depression, a mental health professional can accurately identify the causes and offer interventions to relieve symptoms and improve the person’s health and well-being.
How Long Does Treatment For Grief Last?
The process of grief may take years, but that does not mean that treatment will be required for the same timeframe. In many situations, a therapist can work as a guide to evaluate a person’s grieving process, offer suggestions and guidance, and discontinue treatment when the client is comfortable.
How to Find a Therapist
Finding a therapist with experience in grief and loss is as easy as reaching out to the nearest community agency, doctor’s office, or private practitioner. Before beginning treatment, be sure to interview the professional to assess their comfort and competency in these matters. You can review therapists profiles using a therapist directory in order to find someone you feel comfortable with.
5 Ways to Support a Loved One Dealing With the Loss of a Parent
Watching a friend or loved one experience the pain that comes with the death of a parent is challenging. You want to help, but everything you come up with seems insignificant or misguided.
Here are five ways on how to help a grieving friend or family member who loses a parent:4
1. Show You Care
Sometimes the best thing you can be is present. Speak clearly and calmly. Express the way you feel about your loved one and their loss. Meanwhile, be sure to use positive nonverbal communication skills with good eye contact and posture. These actions help keep your loved one feel cared for and not judged.
2. Ask a Lot of Questions & Be Sure to Listen
At the beginning of the grief and loss process, your loved one may need to tell and retell their story. Let them! Before sitting down with them, you might prepare by thinking about what to say to someone who has lost a parent but remember, your job is to listen intently with warmth and compassion.
3. Keep the Focus on Them
Of course, you can share your own experience with death and grief, but saying too much about your experience can make others feel like they are doing something incorrectly. Stay focused on their experience and the thoughts, feelings, and behaviors that go along with it.
4. Brainstorm Ideas
Ask your loved one how you can help. Initially, they may reject your offers or claim they don’t know how you can help. To counteract this, spend some time brainstorming ideas and be sure to follow through with them. It will be your job to maintain a schedule and arrange the planning, since they will have other things on their mind.
5. Know Your Limits
It is never a good idea for one person to try to offer too much help and assistance to your loved one. If you see that they are struggling with grief and loss, kindly and gently suggest that they seek out counseling. By offering to attend with them or provide transportation, you can remind them that they are not alone.
Final Thoughts on Coping With the Death of a Parent
Coping with the death of a parent is a challenging situation, and one that needs attention. By pursuing healthy coping skills and having supportive people around you, you have a better chance of processing your grief. It’s your chance to put a positive spin on a negative situation.