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candles gathered in a dark space
November 26, 2021
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Supporting a Grieving Parent After the Death of a Spouse

Losing someone you love is never easy, but supporting a loved one through their grief can be just as painful. When adult children lose a parent or step-parent and are caring for or supporting their surviving parent, they unfortunately face these two devastating situations at the same time. Although grief looks different for everyone, if you’ve recently experienced this type of loss, here are some strategies to help you be there for your parent and also encourage your own health and healing:

  • Be open. Sometimes people hesitate to show their own emotions or talk about the person who passed because they are worried that it will make other loved ones sad. Sharing how you feel when you are overcome with emotion or after something triggers a special memory can actually make your parent feel less alone in their sadness. Comments like, ‘I’m really missing mom today,’ ‘This song will always remind me of dad cooking in the kitchen,’ or ‘It’s been six months since we lost Peter,’ will encourage conversations about your shared loss and help you process your grief together.
  • Offer specific help. Many older couples divide household tasks for their entire relationship. If this was the case in your family, your surviving parent may not know how to drive, cook, pay bills or put out the garbage. Suddenly taking on these roles can be very overwhelming so rather than generally asking your parent what they need, be direct about what you can do. Just remember that if you’re juggling your own family, career and grief, it may be very challenging to add more to your own plate, and it is important to be kind to yourself as well. If financially feasible, consider professional caregivers, or perhaps bring in other family members and friends for assistance.
  • Keep showing up. Your parent will need your support for a long time, especially after other offers of assistance start to slow down. There are many potential secondary losses related to the death of a spouse—like having to sell the family home or struggling to maintain friendships—that can make grief surprising and long-lasting. If you live in the same area as your parent, try to visit regularly, go for walks, help with meal plans and find activities that you can do together. And if you’re separated by distance, there are many ways to remain connected and supportive from afar, such as regular phone or video conference calls. Feeling sad is incredibly lonely and being there for others often helps with your own feelings of isolation.
  • Avoid comparisons. Grieving the loss of a parent is different from the loss of a spouse. People experience grief in entirely different ways, so don’t expect your parent to be on the same grief timeline as you. They may struggle to get rid of their spouse’s belongings, become paralyzed by decisions, cry all the time or not appear upset at all. Remain open and supportive, remember that you can never truly know what your parent is going through and that grief creates many complicated emotions. Professional support is always helpful, and especially if your loved one’s grief is not decreasing and is affecting their daily life, help them connect with a therapist.
  • Prioritize yourself. Adult children are faced with a lot of responsibility when a parent dies. This can include funeral arrangements, financial decisions, mountains of paperwork and caring for the surviving parent. You have also experienced a significant loss and that can make it hard to be there for others if you don’t make your health a priority. Eat well, get enough sleep, stay active, do more of the things that bring you joy and find a bereavement support group or a mental health professional to help you cope.

The loss of a parent is a very difficult experience, at any age and regardless of the circumstances. These strategies won’t take away your pain but will hopefully help you remain more compassionate towards your living parent and kind to yourself as you both navigate your grief.