Grief over the death of a parent is a form of bereavement that virtually every human being experiences. Only those who precede their parents in death escape this grief. But why does grief over the loss of a parent hit you so hard – even if you weren’t close?
It’s grounded in the fact that human beings are wired to form close attachments. The first close attachment in your life is the parent-child attachment. That formative relationship sets the stage for so many facets of your life: how you think about yourself, the world, gender roles, romantic relationships, and more. So the loss of this first important relationship reaches deep into your psyche – whether or not you were close to your parents as an adult.
Because a loss of this magnitude produces feelings of grief, mourning will be involved. (Mourning is the emotional expression of grief.) How grief is experienced and mourned fall on a continuum, with varying levels of intensity. And every person’s experience of grief is different. If you were estranged from your parent (or your parent from you), you may be feel some additional and unique aspects of grief.
How Grief and Loss of An Estranged Parent May Affect You
You might not understand or recognize the emotions you are feeling as grief.
Grief can take the form of many emotions, from anger, helplessness, sadness, to thankfulness, and anything in-between. If you weren’t close to the parent who passed, you may not recognize grief as an expected reaction to your loss, because it might not seem like much of a “loss.” As a result, it can be hard to categorize your feelings and discuss them with others.
You may feel guilty.
Your guilt may be the result of how your parent passed, who was with them, or even the type of person you were when they were alive. You also might have expected the relationship with your estranged parent to improve over time, and now are left with the fact that it won’t. The weight of this reality can be heavy and difficult to acknowledge. However, by recognizing the past is something that is finished and unchangeable, you can work on freeing yourself from this guilt.
You may feel like a part of your identity is missing.
It may be hard to view yourself as anything but a “child” when around your parent because of an established hierarchy. However, this ranking changes when we lose our parents. You identify yourself in relation to that parent. I am a son. I am a daughter. It can be a struggle for some to acknowledge and accept the loss of this role.
You may feel feel a little lost.
A parent was your first relationship, whether or not it stayed meaningful into the future. So the loss of this relationship may make you feel alone or less grounded. David Kessler, founder of grief.com, describes it as a reflection of a lost connection, like you no longer have roots.
Your perspective of your parent may change.
As you hear others talk of your parent, it may challenge your mental image that parent. You will probably encounter others who were closer to the deceased, especially in the time period shortly after death, as people come together to mourn. As they share their memories, it may change your perspective, but also leave you feeling disconnected from those who are grieving.
Your feelings may not be validated by others.
Those who knew you were not close to your estranged parent may minimize the validity of your feelings or challenge your right to grieve. This is known as disenfranchised grief, or grief that is not openly acknowledged, socially accepted or publicly mourned.
Death does not bring the closure you were expecting.
You may have hoped any complicated feelings associated with your parent would resolve upon their death. But unfortunately, those difficult emotions will most likely still persist, even in their absence. These emotions, which could have been triggered by your parent, live within you. Relationships continue after someone dies through memories, and you may need to explore your own feelings and work towards forgiveness.
How You Can Cope With The Grief And Loss
Coping with the grief and loss of a parent is going to be different for everyone and you may need specific types of support for the various stages you progress through. However, here are some suggestions to help you process through your grief. They may even provide you an opportunity for personal growth and renewal.
Take inventory of the relationship and how it has affected you by asking yourself:
- What did I get from my parent that I want to keep?
- Are there things I regret not getting?
- What did I receive that I want to discard?
- Are there needs that my parent couldn’t meet for me?
- From whom and/or how have I met those needs – or from whom and/or how might I meet those needs going forward?
Recognize you have the right to grieve.
Even though you may not have been close or may have had a complicated relationship with to your parent, you have a right to deeply miss him or her and grieve the loss.
Know it is okay to feel relief after your parent has passed.
Sometimes we are not close to a parent because of reasons that cause you to feel unsafe or fearful. It does not make you a terrible person if your world feels a little bigger now.
Allow yourself to be able to communicate about your relationship.
It is important to be able to talk and process through what you are experiencing. However, you may need to choose your audience wisely. Not everyone is going to be open to hearing potentially negative viewpoints of the deceased. It is important, though, for you to be able to process through these memories and emotions. If friends and family are not able to support these conversations, consider discussing them with a grief counselor or support group
Look after yourself and place high value on self-care.
Self-care means listening to what you need and allowing yourself to meet that need. This includes eating well, getting enough sleep, exercising regularly, and allowing yourself the time and space to process your emotions.
Realize grief and loss is not a linear process.
Many have heard about of the stages of grieving, with the expectation that you will progress through different stages as your process through your loss. Unfortunately, this perspective makes it seem like you progress through the stages in a particular order. However, grief is not linear. Although you have experienced one stage, it does not mean you do not circle back later. Processing though the grief and loss of a parent is not as predictable as one may hope and the emotions can hit you when you least expect it.
Reach out to a grief and loss counselor if you are struggling.
Grief is a tricky thing and can affect us in ways we couldn’t imagine. The emotions felt as you process through grief can be surprising and confusing. There is no right or wrong way to grieve. It is a process all your own. Seeking support when you need it can help you move through grief faster. If you’re in the Chicago area, consider reaching out to one of our therapists today. We have offices in Glen Ellyn in the western suburbs and in the Jefferson Park neighborhood of Chicago.
Grief and loss of a parent is huge and can narrow your focus. You may be overwhelmed by what you have lost, trying to keep any grasp on it. But when you finally let go with open palms, you will be ready to receive. With anything we lose, there is some light, some positive gain from the experience. It may not be equal in magnitude to what was lost. However when you are open and receptive, you will see what is gained and that all is not gone.
Jean Tschampa, PharmD, LCPC, CADC, C-IAYT, BCC