Based on the circumstances, the connection, and the timing of the loss, coping with the death of a parent can be one of the most challenging experiences a person will face. As sadness, anger, disbelief, confusion, and disorientation set it, people can utilize their coping skills and possibly seek professional treatment to avoid anxiety and depression after the death of a parent.
The process is extremely personal and individualized, but everyone can learn new skills to help deal with the death of a parent.
Dealing With the Death of a Parent Is Hard
Death is a hard, confusing, complicated, and anything-but-straightforward process. Losing a parent will be one of the most significant deaths a person will endure. Though it is inevitable, death, and one’s reaction to the death, has a way of surprising and disorienting anyone.
The death of a parent is especially impactful because of the significant emotional weight of the situation due to the biological connection to the person who has died.
Issues affecting the impact of a parent’s death include:1
- The relationship with the parent: People with strong relationships will miss their parents tremendously, and people with poor relationships may feel levels of guilt, shame, and anger.
- The child’s personality: Some people are better able to accept and adjust to a loss, while others will struggle to find new directions.
- The cause and type of death: Of course, no death is easy to manage, but deaths that are sudden, unexpected, or exceptionally tragic are often more challenging to handle.
- Status of the other parent: Losing one parent is difficult, but the negative influence may be minimized if the other parent is still alive. When both parents are deceased, the child’s status and role in the family shifts.
- Available supports: People with deeper social connections tend to experience fewer unwanted effects of the loss.
Although the death of a parent is a universal experience, the timing of the loss depends on various traits.
Statistics on parental loss point to race, economics, and sex as determining factors:2
- Fathers die before mothers: By age 49, 45% of people have lost their fathers while only 26% of people have lost their mothers. By age 65, 87% of people report a deceased father with only 70% having a deceased mother.
- Black children lose their parents earlier: At age 34, 24% of black children have at least one dead parent, while only 15% of white children report a loss.
- Poverty affects parental loss: Across all age brackets, people who experience poverty are more likely to have a deceased parent. Of people aged 35 to 44 living below the poverty line, 43% have lost at least one parent compared to only 28% of those from wealthier families.
Grieving the Loss of a Parent: Forging a Path and Finding a Way
The period of time after a death can feel so uncertain and confusing as people search for guidance and direction. Many times, they just want confirmation that their experience is normal, typical, or appropriate for the situation because the process can be so unsettling.
The good news is that there is no “right” way to manage any loss, and the guidelines for grieving the loss of a parent are even broader.3 One of the most important aspects of grieving is understanding that each person’s thoughts, feelings, and behaviors connected to the loss will differ. What is healthy and expected for one person could be a sign of distress and dysfunction in another.
Another essential facet of loss is the changing reactions of the experience. Someone may feel very angry, sad, or numb for weeks, and then fine for weeks before the whole cycle restarts. Grief and loss affect a person mentally and physically.
- Shock and denial of loss
- Sadness, feelings of emptiness, and numbness
- Yearning for and missing the parent
- Feeling confused and disoriented
- Feeling angry and anxious
- Envying those whose parents are still alive
- Trouble sleeping with nightmares or dreams of the parent
- Spending tremendous amounts of time thinking of the parent
- Loss of appetite and nausea
- Trembling or feeling shaky
- Shame, guilt, and blaming self
- Feeling weak and tired
- Dry mouth
- Withdrawing from friends and family
These symptoms may be consistent or come in waves. Specific situations like anniversaries or birthdays could trigger the symptoms, or they could appear more randomly.
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.1 Determining precisely 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.1
Cultural beliefs and practices will impact the intensity and duration of grieving, so a person should consider the influence of religion, values, and other beliefs.
When Grief Becomes Depression After the Death of a Parent
Depression is a normal part of the grieving process, but major depressive disorder is something apart 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 and a depressive disorder, consider:1
- 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
Who Should I Consult for Help?
Being sad, feeling depressed, and grieving are all normal experiences, but if someone is confused about their feelings or is experiencing a depressive disorder, they should seek a consultation from the mental health professional immediately. 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.
Most people will not require professional treatment following the loss of a parent, but about 15% to 30% of people will experience complicated grief reactions like:1
- 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
Therapists, psychologists, professional counselors, social workers, and other professionals are available at schools, physician’s offices, community mental health centers, and other locations to help people in need. The decision to use medication is a personal one and should be discussed with the entire treatment team.
How to Find a Therapist
Finding a therapist with experience in grief and loss will be 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.
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.
As always, the cost of therapy can vary greatly with variables like insurance and therapist experience, but generally someone can expect one session to cost between $50 and $150 without insurance.
Dealing With the Death of a Parent: 6 Ways to Cope
Although the experience of grief is extremely individualized, there are plenty of ways to change your thinking and behaviors to help cope with the death of a parent. Some of the most helpful ways to deal with a parent’s death involving finding the balance between listening to your feelings and pushing outside of your comfort zone including:
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.4
2. Experience the Pain
Losses hurt, 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 their parent.
Whatever you are feeling, you should feel comfortable and confident when 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 are driving the car. If you are confused, let yourself be confused.5
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.4 Being around people and discussing the loss can help you understand and accept the situation more readily.
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, the 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:4
- 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 and Celebrate Your Parent
Birthdays, holidays, and anniversaries tend to be painful days in the years after your parent dies, but you can take control of the day by finding ways to remember and celebrate your parent.
You can honor your parent by:
- Preparing their favorite meal on their birthday
- Planting 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.4
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
How To Be a Supportive When a Friend or Family Member Loses 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.
To be supportive when a friend or family member loses a parent:6
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.
Ask a Lot of Questions and Be Sure to Listen
At the beginning of the grief and loss process, your loved one may need to tell and retell their story. Your job is to listen intently with warmth and compassion.
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.
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.
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.
Resources for People Dealing With the Death of a Parent
In dealing with the death of a parent, you never have to go it alone. There are always people, groups, and organizations focused on aiding people in the grief and loss process.
Some organizations dedicated to helping people manage loss include:
- The Association for Death Education and Counseling (ADEC): A group of professionals dedicated to grief and loss treatment
- The Compassionate Friends: Offering a network of support groups for people experiencing grief and loss
- COPE: A nonprofit organization helping people who have lost a child to death
- National Alliance for Grieving Children A group of resources for children and teens dealing with grief
- Speaking Grief: A media and awareness initiative working to showcase and validate varied grieving experiences