When a Parent Dies: Dealing with the Loss of Your Mother or Father
By David Kessler
Jeffrey’s mother was 82 and lived five hours away. They saw each other at least monthly. He was aware of her age as well as her frail condition. She had congestive heart failure (CHF) and often had a small oxygen canister by her side. Jeffrey had offered to move her in, but she loved the assisted living facility where she had spent the last 11 years and had made many friendships there.
Jeffrey was visiting her more frequently since there were more emergency calls. Once she was hospitalized for dehydration. Another time, he flew to her side when she broke her wrist. The physical strain was not the worst part on either of them. Both felt that the hardest part was knowing that every goodbye might be the last.
They often made every goodbye a true goodbye, telling each other how much they loved one another. Jeffrey would say, “You are the best mom a guy could ever have.” She would gently place her hand on his cheek and say, “Jeffrey I’m so proud of you.”
After about a dozen tear-filled goodbyes, they began to joke about how they couldn’t keep up the mushy stuff if she lived another ten years. After that, the goodbyes became lighter, aware that all that needed to be said, had been said – often. Two years later, when Jeffrey’s mom died quietly in her sleep, he was deeply saddened and realized that last goodbye really was – the last goodbye.
In his grieving, he was glad they had done and said everything there was to say and yet he still deeply felt the loss. The tradition of saying goodbye had taught him a valuable lesson. We really never know when our last goodbye will come with anyone. When our parents become elderly and frail, we may get an alert, but we still never know for sure.
When a parent of an adult dies, there is almost an unspoken expectation that it will not hit you head on. An adult is expected to accept death as a part of life, to handle all sudden losses in an appropriate adult manner. But really, what does that mean? That you should not be sad? That you should be so grateful they didn’t die when you were a child that you don’t need to mourn your parent? The above considerations demonstrate an under-estimation of grief.
Grief is the reflection of the connection that has been lost. That loss does not diminish because you are an adult or because your mother or father lived a long life. Our society places enormous pressure on us to get over loss, to get through the grief. But how long do you grieve for the man who was your father for 30 years? Do you grieve less for your mother of 50 years? The loss happens in a moment, but its aftermath lasts a lifetime. The grief is real because loss is real. Each loss has its own imprint, as distinctive and unique as the person we lost. It doesn’t matter how old we are.
Annie, a woman in her mid-50s who lived in New York City, talked to her father often in Montana. She was thrilled he was maintaining his independence into his nineties. She was especially close to him since she had lost her mother when she was just 10 years old. During every visit, she loved his stamina and zest for life.
On her Thanksgiving visit, however, he looked different. She hoped it was just the natural aging process, but was shocked when he sat her down to tell her the news. He said, “I have cancer and I’m not going to treat it at my age. At 94 I’ve had my share of life. I don’t need any more.”
By Christmas he was gone. At the funeral, Annie was devastated by the loss. Her family, friends and loved ones gathered with her as they had at so many other occasions. She was expecting everyone to understand the depth of her pain. She had lost the man who had been her father for 55 years, the man who had been both mother and father to her for 45 of those years. She felt a tremendous emptiness now that this kind man no longer walked the earth with her.
Surprisingly, the well-intentioned words she heard did not resonate with her. Her best friend said, “He had a long life, you must be happy about that.” She thought, “I am and I wish he were still here.” A cousin said, “You should be so grateful he didn’t die young like your mother.” Another family member said, “You’re so lucky he died so quickly.” She thought, I’m not happy, grateful or feeling lucky right now. I feel unbelievably sad and alone.
Annie’s story is not that uncommon. She greatly suffered the loss of her father who had been by her side her entire life. She would never have another father. Her mother had long passed on and now her father was gone. We sometimes forget the depth of connection we have with our parents. They are often our main connection in the world and to the world. Although Annie had a loving husband and many close friends, she had lost one of her first and most important connections when her father died.
The people around Annie saw her as a mature, capable adult – and she was. That, however, does not decrease the pain of her loss. Her friends did not realize that not only had she lost her last parent, but she was even more alone when they did not recognize her grief.
After our parents die, we take another look at them. We realize, perhaps for the first time, all they did for us as children. For some of us, when we become parents, we appreciate the challenges our own parents must have gone through. We gain a new perspective on their lives. If we idealized our parents when we were kids, now we also see their flaws and imperfections. And so, in our adulthood, our relationship with our parents changes and continues. Before a parent is gone, we understand intellectually that they will die some day. But understanding and anticipating does not prepare us for the grief we feel when as an adult we lose a parent.
Karen was in her 30’s, mother of two kids, happily married for eight years and building her career. Once every week, she visited her parents who were in their early 60’s, still working with a life of their own. Karen expected this would go on for at least another decade or two. But one day at work, Karen got a call that her mother had suddenly died of a heart attack.
Karen was frozen; she could not believe the news. It just didn’t feel like it was her mother’s time yet. She had not anticipated a future alone with her father and it was hard for her to comprehend all that had been lost. Her first thought was to help her father make the necessary arrangements. Soon, Karen, like many others, found herself dealing not only with her own grief but also helping her father get through this time. Her father and she had shared so many moments in life and now, sharing grief was a new role for them to play. She sat quietly and peacefully with him, gently asking him questions about what her mother would have wanted. Together they planned a funeral that reflected who this woman was to both of them. It turned out that this planning process was the beginning of them sharing stories about her mother’s life in a new way.
Karen’s dad told her about when he and her mother had met, how shy her mom was and how he couldn’t believe she was gone. Karen had never thought of her as a shy person and she asked questions that she had never asked when her mother was alive. She wondered if her mom was ever sorry she gave up being a flight attendant. She’d always viewed her mother’s past profession from a child’s view. Wasn’t it fun that Mommy used to be one of those people who passed out the drinks on planes and made everyone buckle their seatbelts? Karen was angry that now, in her 30’s, she realized she never thought to ask her mom where she liked flying the best. Was her mom ever afraid of crashing? Now, she could only ask her father and get a second-hand answer.
In the following months, Karen and her dad had tons of late night talks about the woman they missed so much. They reminded each other that these hard times would pass, and Karen was fascinated to discover sides to her mom that she never knew existed. Through talking with her father, she found a deeper appreciation for her mom as both a mother and a wife. She worked on making peace with the fact she would no longer have her mother around for parenting advice as her own kids got older.
While Karen revisited her mother’s life through her adult eyes, she and her father were experiencing the now well-known stages of grief. In “On Grief and Grieving,” a book I co-authored with Elisabeth Kübler-
Ross, M.D., she and I discuss how these stages have evolved since their introduction and how they have been very misunderstood over the past decades. People mistakenly think they are meant to tuck messy emotions into neat packages. But the emotions of grief reflect feelings and are beyond organizing. They are organic responses to loss, and just like there are no typical losses, there are no typical responses to loss. The truth is that our grief is as individual as our lives.
The five stages of grief – denial, anger, bargaining, depression and acceptance – are a part of the framework that makes up our learning to live with the one we lost. They are tools to help us frame and identify what we may be feeling; but, not to organize it. The five stages of loss are not stops on some linear timeline of grief. Not everyone goes through all of them, and there is no prescribed order. They are as follows:
Denial in grief has been misinterpreted over the years. When the stage of denial was first introduced by Kübler-Ross, it focused on the person who was dying. In grief after loss, the denial is more symbolic than literal.
This does not mean that you literally don’t know your loved one has died. It means you come home and you can’t believe that your parent isn’t ever going to call again or that your father isn’t just a flight away. You simply can’t fathom that he will never walk through your door again.
When we are in denial, we may respond at first by being paralyzed with shock. The denial is still not the denial of the actual death, even though someone may be saying, “I can’t believe he’s dead.” The person is actually communicating that this death is too much for his or her psyche.
This first stage – denial – helps us to survive the loss. When we are in a state of shock we go numb. We wonder how we can go on, why we should go on. We try to find a way to simply get through each day.
Denial and shock help us to cope and make survival possible. Denial helps us to pace our feelings of grief. There is a grace in denial. It is nature’s way of letting in only as much as we can handle.
You begin to question the how and why. You may ask as you review the circumstances, how did this happen? You are no longer in an external story telling mode. Now you turn inward as you begin the search for understanding. You explore the circumstances surrounding the loss. Did it have to happen? Did it have to happen that way? Could anything have prevented it?
The finality of the loss begins to gradually sink in. She is not coming back. This time he didn’t make it. With each realization of the truth, you begin to climb the mountain of realizing they are really gone.
As you accept the reality of the loss and start to ask yourself questions, you are unknowingly beginning the healing process. You will find yourself becoming stronger while the denial is beginning to fade. But as you proceed, all the feelings you were denying begin to surface.
This stage presents itself in many ways: anger at your parent that he didn’t take better care of himself or anger that you didn’t take better care of him. Anger does not have to be logical or valid. You may be angry that you didn’t see this coming and when you did, nothing could stop it. Or you may be angry with the doctors for not being able to save someone so dear to you. Your anger may take the form of facing the fact that bad things could happen to someone who meant so much to you.
Anger is a necessary stage of the healing process. Be willing to feel your anger. The more you truly feel it, the more it will begin to dissipate and the faster you will heal. There are many emotions under the anger. You will get to them in time, but anger is the emotion we are most used to managing. We choose it, often to avoid the feelings underneath, until we are ready to face them. It may feel all-consuming, but as long as anger doesn’t consume you for a long period of time, it is a legitimate part of your internal emotional management.
If we ask people to move through their anger too fast, we alienate them. Whenever we ask people to be different than they are, or to feel something different, we are not accepting them as they are and where they are. Nobody likes to be asked to change and not be accepted as they are. We like it even less in the midst of grief.
Underneath anger is pain, your pain. It is natural to feel deserted and abandoned after a death, but we live in a society that fears anger. People often tell us our anger is misplaced, inappropriate or disproportionate. Some people may feel your anger is too harsh or too much. But we can’t change other’s reactions. All we can do is take care of ourselves.
People are often conflicted about the loss of a parent about whom they had negative feelings. The confusing grief that follows is that adult children can’t understand feeling sad and angry about someone they really didn’t like. We mourn for those who cared for us the way they should have. We also mourn for those who did not give us the love we deserved. You can grieve fully for people who were terrible to you. And if you need to grieve for them, you should do so. We must take time to mourn and experience the type of parent we had and the type we never had, and acknowledge the reality that those losses cannot be pushed aside even if we think the person did not deserve our love.
In grieving loss, remember that anger means you are progressing, that you are allowing all those feelings that were simply too much, to come to the surface. It is important to feel the anger without judging it, without attempting to find meaning in it. It may take many forms: anger at the healthcare system, at life, or at your parent for dying, along with blame and resentment. Life is unfair. Death is unfair. Anger is a natural reaction to the unfairness of loss. Unfortunately, however, anger can isolate you from friends and family at the precise time you may need them the most.
You also may experience feelings of guilt, which is anger turned inward on yourself. But you are not to blame. If you could change things, you would, but you can’t. Anger affirms that you can feel, that you did love and that you have lost. Don’t let anyone diminish the importance of feeling your anger fully. And don’t let anyone criticize your anger – not even you.
Before a loss, it seems like you will do anything if only your loved one could be spared. “Please God,” you bargain, “I will never be angry at my mom again if you’ll just let her live.” After a loss, bargaining may take the form of a temporary truce. “What if I devote the rest of my life to helping others? Then, can I wake up and realize this has all been a bad dream?”
We become lost in a maze of “If only …” or “What if …” statements. We want life returned to what it was. We want our father back. We want to go back in time so we can find the tumor sooner, recognize the illness more quickly, stop the accident from happening…if only, if only, if only.
Bargaining can help our mind move from one state of loss to another. It can be a way station that gives our psyche the time it may need to adjust. Bargaining can fill the gaps that our strong emotions generally dominate as it keeps suffering at a distance. It allows us to believe that we can restore order to the chaos that has taken over.
After a death, bargaining often moves from the past to the future. We may bargain that we will see our parents again in heaven. We may bargain and ask for a respite from illnesses in our family, or that no other tragedies visit our loved ones.
As we move through the bargaining process, the mind alters past events while exploring all those “what if” and “if only” statements. Sadly, as adults, we arrive at the inevitable conclusion … the reality is that parent is truly gone.
After bargaining, our attention moves into the present. Empty feelings surface, and grief enters our lives on a deeper level, deeper than we ever imagined. This depressive stage feels as though it will last forever. It’s important to understand that this depression is not a sign of mental illness. It is the appropriate response to the loss of a parent.
Depression after a loss is often criticized as unnatural: a state to be fixed, something to snap out of. The first question to ask yourself is whether or not the situation you’re in is actually depressing. The loss of a parent is a very depressing situation, and depression is a normal and appropriate response. When a loss fully settles in your soul, the realization that your parent didn’t get better this time and is not coming back is understandably depressing.
If we look at grief as a process of healing, then depression is one of the many necessary steps along the way. If you have the awareness to recognize you are in depression or have been told by multiple friends you are depressed, your first response may be to resist and find a way out. Finding a way out of depression feels like going into a maze, fearful that there is no exit.
As tough as it is, depression can be dealt with in a paradoxical way. See it as a visitor, perhaps an unwelcome one, but one who is visiting whether you like it or not. Make a place for your guest. Invite your depression to pull up a chair with you in front of the fire, and sit with it, without looking for a way to escape. Allow the sadness and emptiness to cleanse you and help you explore your loss in its entirety. When you allow yourself to experience depression, it will usually leave as soon as it has served its purpose in your loss. As you grow stronger, it may return from time to time, but that is how grief works.
As difficult as it is to endure, depression has elements that can be helpful in grief. It slows us down and allows us to take real stock of the loss. It makes us rebuild ourselves from the ground up. It clears the deck for growth. It takes us to a deeper place in our soul that we would not normally explore.
This stage is about accepting the reality that our loved one is physically gone and that this new reality is permanent. We will never like this reality or make it okay, but eventually we accept it. We learn to live with it. It is the new norm with which we must learn to live. This is where our final healing and adjustment can take a firm hold, despite the fact that healing often looks and feels like an unattainable state.
Healing looks like remembering, recollecting and reorganizing. We may cease to be angry with God; we may become aware of the common-sense reasons for our loss, even if we never actually understand the reasons. We, the survivors, begin sadly to realize that it was our loved one’s time to die. Of course it was too soon for us, and probably too soon for him or her, too. Perhaps he was very old or full of pain and disease. Perhaps her body was worn down and she was ready for her life to be over. But our life still continues. It is not yet time for us to die. In fact, it is time for us to heal.
Now we try to live in a world where our parent is missing. In resisting this new norm, at first many people want to maintain life as it was before a loved one died. In time, through bits and pieces of acceptance, we see that we cannot maintain the past intact. It has been forever changed and we must readjust. We must learn to reorganize roles, re-assign them to others or take them on ourselves.
John Jr. had close ties with his father besides sharing his name. From the time he was a young boy, John Jr. had a passion for action-adventure movies and his father would take him every chance he got. But John Jr. was impatient, hating every moment that they waited in line. His father would try to explain to him that waiting was part of the experience. There was always a moment that John Jr. loved when his father would say to him, “You’re next in line.”
As John Jr. grew up, he and his father remained close, still going to the movies together at least once a month, a tradition that continued into John Jr.’s mid-life and his father’s later years. When John’s father reached his late 70’s, John Jr. noticed that his dad had become more impatient – with waitresses, with people who were a moment late, the mail, and of course, standing in line. The roles had reversed. John Jr., now in his late 40’s, was the one leaning into his father assuring him the wait wouldn’t be long and assuring him that he was next in line.
After John Sr. turned 80, his health began to deteriorate due to congestive heart failure. He needed oxygen all the time and was rarely able to leave the house any more. Finally, John died with his son at his bedside. John Jr. grieved deeply the loss of his father. On the one year anniversary after his father’s death, John was suddenly hit with something he had not thought about. He was now the oldest member of his family. He was next in line to die. He realized that his father had been a million things to him, but until this moment, he had never considered that his father was all that stood between him and his own mortality. Coming to terms with this was part of his grieving process.
In our grief, while heavy emotions flow within us, we are still called upon to complete the practical obligations of tying up the loose ends of our parent’s world. One of the tasks laid before us in our grief is taking care of our parent’s possessions. Whatever their possessions may be, whether the most valuable items or small inexpensive things they collected over the years, they all are symbolic. They represent things that meant enough to our parents that they chose to keep them.
People often find this an overwhelming task. Consider inviting a friend to help. Use this as a journey of discovery to reveal memories that were long forgotten by you. You can also use this difficult process to learn new things about your parents. You may feel like you are invading their privacy but just remember – who else would they want to do this besides you? Who would protect their privacy and their dignity better than you?
It may be hard to let go of certain things that represent your parents to you. Other items you may want to keep to give to friends, family members, or perhaps to your kids. Keep some of them and give the rest away to a charity of your choice. This can be your parents’ final gift to the world. Imagine how these things could help someone else who does not have the money or resources to buy everything they need. Now, someone else can get pleasure from and find usefulness for some of your parent’s prized possessions.
One woman shared how tough it had been for her to get rid of her parent’s belongings. When she reframed it as redistributing her parents love, it made the job so much easier.
Some of you may be packing up a deceased parent’s belongings with the surviving parent. You may be the one gently helping them get through this task. Be patient, be kind, and make time to talk about memories. It could be very helpful to have a camera with you. You’ll find there are a number of things that you want to remember and it might not make sense to keep the item that you know you will never use again. Try giving it away. By keeping a picture of the item, you retain the memory while allowing the item to go back into use by someone else.
As we work to balance our inner and outer worlds, we may be surprised to discover that each of us grieves differently.
Betty and Eva, sisters, were both in their 40’s and took turns having their parents over for meals. Every Sunday Betty made a big dinner and all the kids had to be there – no matter what. Eva on the other hand, was more laissez-faire. At her house, she may or may not have had dinner ready. Sometimes she took them all out and which ever grandkids were around would join them.
The girls’ worlds were turned upside down when their mother became ill with pancreatic cancer. After she passed away, both sisters wanted their father to live with them, but he wanted to keep the house and stay in it. While they both grieved their mother, they were intently focused on how their dad was handling it. They would have long talks asking him if he were really doing okay. Eventually, they figured that one of them would get him to move in, but just three months after their mother died, he came down with Pneumonia and was gone in an instant.
Five weeks later, both sisters were standing at their parents graves. In tears, Betty asked Eva for a tissue. Eva, dry-eyed, grabbed one from her purse, but instead of responding with a thank you, Betty asked her sister, “Aren’t you sad?”
Surprised, Eva said, “Are you crazy! You don’t think I’m sad? Why on earth would you ask such a question?”
“Well,” said Betty, “you won’t go to the grief group, and you don’t talk about our parents as much as I do. When I go to your house for dinner, it’s like nothing has happened.”
Eva tried to explain, “I’m going to miss our parents for the rest of my life. The hole in my heart is the same size as yours but I just don’t grieve like you. We’ve never been twins. Why would you expect us to be exactly alike now?”
Betty did her best to understand that her sister had a different way to grieve than she did, but she still didn’t quite get it. Without being aware of it, some of us tend to feel that our way of grieving is the right way. We think others should grieve like we do. Regardless of the grief we feel, we usually fall toward one end of the pendulum or the other. We are either “grieving the right way (our way)” or judging ourselves that we are grieving the “wrong way.”
In the end, we need compassion for ourselves and those around us. We have suffered a great loss in our life, one that has shaken us to the core. For Betty and Eva, having both parents die within close proximity of each other was doubly devastating and unfortunately, not an uncommon story. For the adult child, when parents die one right after the other, the more disconnected you may feel from the world.
Sharon and her father spoke weekly and told each other everything that was going on in their lives. He lived across the country, however, and they didn’t see each other often. Sharon was very upset to hear that her father had a stroke and immediately flew back to see him in Florida. They had a wonderful yet bittersweet time together. In their hearts, they both knew what was in front of them.
When he died, Sharon was very sad and went back for the funeral. But because she did not cry much, she decided she was not deeply grieving – until a few days later when she woke up and suddenly felt a strange sensation in her stomach. It was not hunger, but rather, it was emptiness. She realized she felt cut off, as if she were a flower that had been snipped away from its roots. It was as if she were floating with no ground or foundation. “I feel rootless and disconnected,” she said.
Whether our parents live near or far, are emotionally close or distant, they ground us in the world. We don’t often think of them as an unseen anchor, but in truth, they hold a place in our generational timeline. They have been there since the moment we were born and even though, intellectually, we know they will die some day, how do we imagine something that has always been there, suddenly being gone? Can you imagine a world without a sky? Of course not. It has always been there.
The death of a parent delivers us to a world we have thought about but couldn’t actually fully prepare for. We are suddenly exploring new terrain. For Sharon, it was being rootless. Others have talked about feeling as if the ground had been pulled out from under them. And in a symbolic way, it really has been.
It will take Sharon some time to find her footing again. She will realize she still has roots, just not her father’s roots any more. She will find her grounding with other family members, friends, and in herself. She will find meaning again. But now, she will live in a new world where her father no longer lives. He may not be in the next state or a phone call away, but he will always live in Sharon’s heart.
As we heal, we learn who we are and who our parents were in life. In a strange way, as we move through grief, healing brings us closer to the person we loved. A new relationship begins. We learn to live with the parent we lost.
Little by little, we withdraw our energy from the loss and begin to invest it back into life. We put the loss into perspective, learning how to remember our loved ones and commemorate the loss.
We can never replace our parents, but we can strengthen our family connections as we find new and deeper meaning in our existing relationships. We begin to live again, but we cannot do so until we have given grief its time.
It’s hard to imagine a world without our parents. Milestones have been reached and suddenly a road that was always familiar, is wide open with nothing in front of us but an undetermined future.
Without realizing it, we always had the luxury of asking ourselves, “Shall I do it like my parents did it? Should I be like my mother? My father is making a certain choice. Do I want to make the same choice?” Now all their choices have been made; their lives have been lived. Now it’s up to you to take all that you learned and continue on with your life. Try to remember, just like you watched your loved ones, people are watching you – whether they are your children, your friends or your family. We are all students and teachers when it comes to grieving. We see how other people grieve and people see us grieve. Then we think about it, we internalize it and without realizing it, we model grief for our children if we have them.
Don’t be afraid to grieve in your own way. Owning your own sadness, your own truth, at whatever level it comes through will actually be an inspiration and perhaps give permission to others to grieve in their own way.
As you look back on your parent’s life, you see many aspects you never knew or understood. That is the nature of life. Sometimes, in loss we take full stock, perhaps for the first time, of all that there was – all that could have been. It’s important for you to be aware of not just the sadness and the grieving, but all that love, all that courage, all those new sides of your parent that you are presently discovering. This can and will help to bring new meaning to your life.
Now that you come to the end of a life, that same life which gave you life, the memory is buried deep in your heart and dwells deep in your soul. A new relationship will continue with that parent – not a physical relationship but one where the parent lives on in your heart. You will continue to remember them, think of them and love them, for the rest of your life until you meet again.
In the days to come, as time passes, it may still hurt but in time it will hurt less frequently. All that your parent was, all the love you shared and the relationship you had will not die. That depth of love, that depth of caring, is everlasting.
About the Author
David Kessler is one of the most well-known experts on grief and loss today, reaching hundreds of thousands of people through his books including “On Grief and Grieving: Finding the Meaning of Grief through the Five Stages of Loss,” co-authored with the legendary Elisabeth Kübler-Ross. They also co-authored, “Life Lessons: Two Experts on Death and Dying Teach us about the Mysteries of Life and Living.” His first book, “The Needs of the Dying: A Guide for Bringing Hope, Comfort and Love to Life’s Final Chapter,” received praise by Mother Teresa.
His work has been discussed in the “LA Times,” the “NY Times,” and has been featured on CNN, NBC, MSNBC, PBS, “Entertainment Tonight,” and “Oprah’s Friends.” He has written for the Boston
Globe, The LA Times and The SF Chronicle. Visit www.Grief.com