Helping Yourself When Your Parent Has Died

Alan D. Wolfelt, Ph.D.


Loss of a parent is the single most common form of bereavement in North America, with more than 15 million experiencing this loss each year. Seventy-five percent of us have lost both parents by age 62.

No matter how old you are, you are your parent’s child. There are still times when you need your mom and dad. The parent-child relationship often serves as a “mirror” that helps reflect who you are in this world. It only makes sense that the death of a parent leaves you with a broken heart. As you search for ways to heal, focusing upon the following issues may help.

Care for yourself

To be “bereaved” means to have special needs, with perhaps the most important need being compassion with yourself. Often, though, we are the opposite, with inappropriate expectations of how “well” we should be handling our grief.

These expectations result from common societal messages that tell us to be strong in the face of grief. We may be told to “carry on” or “keep our chins up.” In actuality, when we are grieving we need to slow down, embrace our feelings of loss, as well as seek and accept support.

Our culture may not encourage self-compassion, but good self-care is essential to your survival. It doesn’t mean you are feeling sorry for yourself. It means you are allowing yourself to heal. For it is in nurturing ourselves, in allowing ourselves the time and attention we need to journey through our grief, that we find meaning in our continued living.

Grieve and mourn

Grief is what we think and feel on the inside when someone we love dies. Mourning is the outward expression of our grief. Everyone grieves when someone loved dies, but if we are to heal, we must also mourn. Mourning may include talking to others about our grief, crying, writing in a journal or participating in a support group.

Tell your story

Acknowledging a death is a painful, ongoing need that we meet slowly, over time. A vital part of healing—and an important way to mourn—is “telling the story” again and again. When you tell someone the story of your parent’s death, you might relate the circumstances of the death, review the relationship, describe aspects of your parent’s personality and share memories, good and bad. Each time we tell the story, it becomes a little more real. Find people who are willing to listen without judgment.

Remember the big myth

The myth is that “Everyone dies, and people who have lived a long, full life are expected to die. You’re a grown-up; you know these things. You shouldn’t be so upset when your parent dies.”

But the reality is that the death of someone you love, especially someone who played such a big part in your life, is a profound loss. Whether your parent was very old or middle-aged, whether the death was sudden or anticipated, someone you loved and who loved you will never be physically present to you again. Of course you grieve; you need to mourn!

Be compassionate with siblings

Just as there is no single “right” way for you to mourn, there is no single right way for your brothers and sisters. Each may mourn differently.

While you may anticipate some responses (for example, your emotional sister is emotional), others may surprise you. Your emotionally detached brother is a basket-case. Or your conscientious sister may refuse to help plan the funeral. Try not to let these differences alarm or hurt you. Try to remember that each is grieving in his or her own way.

If there is a surviving parent, each sibling will also relate uniquely to him or her. Try to discuss care-giving responsibilities proactively and vent grievances without blame.

Sort belongings

Knowing what to do with a parent’s belongings can be particularly difficult when this responsibility falls to an adult child. As with all things in grief, there is no single right answer. You must do what feels right. When you’re ready to sort through your parent’s belongings, ask your siblings or a family friend to help you. This is often too large—and too emotional—a task to handle alone. Don’t dispose of things in haste; you won’t be able to get them back later.

Embrace your spirituality

Above all, grief is a journey of the soul. You must consider why people live, why people die and what gives life meaning. For many, formal places of worship offer a safe place and a ritualized process to address these spiritual questions. Make the effort to embrace your spirituality. It may help to inspire a sense of peace, hope and healing.

Trust your capacity to heal

If you mourn your parent’s death openly and accept support from others, you will, in time, come to reconcile your loss. Ultimately, you may find that you are growing emotionally and spiritually through your grief journey. Trust in your capacity to heal. You can and you will.

About the author

Alan D. Wolfelt, Ph.D., is a noted author, teacher and grief counsellor known internationally for outstanding educational contributions to both adult and childhood grief. He serves as director of the Centre for Loss and Life Transition and is on the faculty at the University of Colorado Medical School’s Department of Family Medicine.