What to do When a Parent Dies

By: David Lechnyr, LCSW

When death happens in a family, it seems to change everything. Everyone must make adjustments, work through their grief and loss, and figure out how to continue on life’s journey in a new and different way. However, when a parent dies, regardless of their age, something very different happens.

It is really difficult for anyone to really understand how one can feel at the loss of a parent unless they have gone through it themselves. However, with the death of a parent, whether they are young, middle age, or elderly, the emotions experienced by the family is the same.

These emotions are “intense and overwhelming” and tend to impact everything. Each of us handle it differently depending on the meaning that our parents had in our lives and the “role” we played in their lives. Sometimes men handle it differently then women probably because women tend to have stronger attachments, and more defined roles, in the lives of their parents then men.

The quality of the family ties, issues of family dysfunction, and the parent’s response to us makes all the difference in how the loss of a parent affects us. There is no one way for a person to experience loss. Some we feel more than others but that does not suggest that one type of loss means any less to us. It is a time of “Role Reversal” with the adult children now having to assume the parent role where they need to make adult decisions for the good of the parent.

This is hard and can make one feel guilty for having to make “tough Decisions” at a difficult time. It is critical to know that this “Role Reversal” can be shared among family members many times and the burden does not have to be carried by one the adult children. It is important to share these issues together. The “crisis of the Role Reversal” is that it comes at a time when other crises may well be happening and distracting you. However, we must hold on to the reality of life: There is never a good time for a crisis. Role Reversals take strength to handle. It is not an easy task, but it is a necessary one that must be done for the realistic needs of the family, parent, etc.

A Shared Tragedy

What happens in families when a parent dies, is lost to death is that there is a “shared tragedy” that overwhelms everyone–our family, the extended family, and the community. However, these emotions do not necessarily create a “tighter bond” among the surviving family members because it is difficult to experience these emotions. Further the parent may have been the “tie” that held the various extended family members together.

The sense that the “parent was always there,” or that “there was always this place called ‘home’ that one could turn to for memories and a sense of security” is no longer there. This makes the loss even greater and more intense. The death of a parent brings up memories of unresolved crises and issues, problems, struggles, and “stuff” we have “stuffed away.” Suddenly these emotions come up and we find ourself responding emotionally in ways that are not “the norm” for us. However, it is a time that some healing and personal awareness can happen.

Very often, instead of holding the family together the emotions become so “tight” that the bond “snaps” or brings up old unresolved emotions. Some research studies marital and family difficulty and instability is common within months after the death of a parent. Some families handle it different all depending on a number of issues including “old issues,” issues of interaction throughout life, and issues of “mutual dependency.” The problem is that it is very difficult to give “equal comfort” when the family is experiencing “equal grief” about what happened. “Everyone is needy and dependent in some way.”

If one becomes too tired or overwhelmed and falls under the burdens, the other is left having to pull that share too resulting in growing resentments and “voiced anger” and irritability. This results in the overwhelmed and exhausted first mate becoming resentful because they are not treated sympathetically by the other mate or family member who may not quite understand why this is “such a problem” for their spouse, sibling, etc.

As a result, “common grief” is not the best adhesive cement for a marriage because it is difficult to lean on something that is just as “bent” over the burden of the loss. The “awful vacuum of death” overcomes us and creates a chasm in our relationships. As a result, we have to become more realistic about what it is that we expect from each other. It is not easy to be a “tower of strength” to the other person when one is grieving themselves. Couples might resent that their mates, family, etc., cannot “be there for them,” “understand,” and “be strong” so they “bite back, fight, and get upset with each other making the hurt even deeper and sadder.

Recovering from a Loss

It is critical to acknowledge that something terrible has happened to the family that will affect everyone from this point forward. This is true even if we did not have the best parents or childhood experience! It raises the question of “now what” and how to live without the person, the drama, the struggles, the good and the bad times It is understanding that there is “no right way to grieve” or when “it should be over with.”

It is also critical to be aware how vulnerable everyone is feeling at this time no matter how “good” they look or act. Anniversaries of the death, anniversaries of birthdays, and other events, will bring up “waves of grief and loss” that can be overwhelming and difficult. It is important to remember that these “waves” are our attempts to “stay connected”. We must remember the positives and the emotions that we don’t have to let go of, as long as we can also live life to it’s fullest as our parent would want us to to. We need to talk and talk and talk in order to get out emotions and feelings of emptiness out and expressed so that they don’t overtake us.

However, it is also important to not always talk this out together. Reach out to a friend, a therapist, and someone else so that they can “share the burden.” This helps to take some of the pressure off the other grieving family members who will also need to do the same for their own sake. Remember, grief is not an automatic process that is cut off at “some respectful time or interval.” This type of loss is “long term anguish.”

To bury a parent is to see a part of yourself, your eye color, your dimple, your sense of humor, your past history, security, feeling you have a “place to turn to,” and hopes/desires, being placed into the grave. Like losing a child to death, the loss of a parent can also be one of life’s harshest experiences, forcing a change about life, the future, change in roles, and the loss of security in a base to “turn to” when feeling unsure. When a parent dies, we don’t just mourn the loss of them, but we also mourn a bit of our own immortality that we are not faced with as “the senior family members, etc.” and what this means for our future.

It raises the question of “NOW WHAT” and we are not sure how to answer that easily for many personal reasons. Understand that the first feelings are numbness and a sense of not knowing what to do, having others telling us what to do, and not being able to think clearly for a while. With time one will return to functioning even though the loss will always very real and with you for the rest of your life.

However, it is critical, over time, to understand that one is not abandoning the dead person by coming back to life, laughing again, and living each day with joy and excitement. It is good to enjoy life. Enjoying life does not mean that one has forgotten their family member, etc, even though this is a very difficult truth for person, or others in the family, to accept. Grief is a “process” that does not happen over night where one awakens one morning feeling good and fine.

Other changes seem to affect us differently. We become upset with the constant changes and pressures in our lives knowing that there is no “base” to turn to to help us feel secure when we are overwhelmed. One can carry their grief with it not having to carry you!

It is really, in the end of this long process, understanding that there is still a future that can be positive for all concerned. In the meantime, it will hurt, feel bad, and be overwhelming. This is normal and to be expected. Acceptance takes time and no one can rush it. No one will fully understand it as much as you do. We are to remember that though we do not understand it all, we need to develop our future even in the face of tragedy and great loss.

The loss of a parent offers us a chance to examine our life in detail and deal with the meaning of existence. This is at times upsetting but it also allows for asking what you want to do with the rest of your life and how you can make changes that will be important to you as a person in life.