When a parent dies, we find ourselves in a new place faced with sometimes surprising emotions. David Kessler, founder of grief.com and co-author with Dr. Elisabeth Kübler-Ross of the influential book On Grief and Grieving: Finding the Meaning of Grief Through the Five Stages of Loss, said many adults, regardless of age, can feel like an orphan after a parent dies.
“We tend to think of ourselves as ‘children’ until we lose our parents. It is only then that we are on the front line of mortality,” said Debra J. Umberson, professor of sociology at the University of Texas at Austin and author of the book Death of a Parent: Transition to a New Adult Identity.
It’s not unusual for adults to feel a new sense of freedom when a parent dies, according to Jeanne Safer, author of Death Benefits: How Losing a Parent Can Change an Adult’s Life – for the Better. After a parent dies, many people feel more free to marry outside their religion or ethnicity; “people come out [as gay], leave their religion, come to religion, get divorces – all kinds of things,” says Safer.
People can also experience grief over the death of a parent whom they’ve had a bad relationship with. “We believe we only grieve people we love but that actually isn’t true,” Kessler said. “My definition of grief is a reflection of a connection we have lost… Sometimes we have to grieve for what never was, for that ideal parent we never had.”
After the death of a parent, so much attention and time are taken up with details surrounding the funeral and memorial that it can be distracting from thinking about the loss itself because of the day to day details in sorting through everything. It’s when things settle down, even if it’s a year later, when we truly realize the loss and the realization that they’re never coming back. Family traditions, birthdays, and anniversaries will still go on but they will be different.
Here are some steps you can take to aid in the grief process.
Rituals. “Having a place that reminds the child of the parent and going to that place to talk things through with the parent can be very comforting,” Umberson said.
Recognizing your legacy. Safer suggests four questions to ask yourself about your parent’s character are: “What did I get from my parent that I want to keep? What do I regret not getting? What did I get that I want to discard? What did I need that my parent couldn’t provide?”
Reach out for support. The pain of the loss of a parent will lessen with time. Bereavement and grief cannot be contained to the average 3 days that are given us in most workplaces. Allow yourself to grieve for however long you need. You may find it comforting to be with others who’ve experienced a similar loss whether it’s friends or a support group. Don’t hesitate or be afraid to reach out so you can move forward.
Share your grief online. “Posting a photo of your mother on the anniversary of her death can connect you with friends and family who are also grieving. You can also find a closed Facebook group where people unite on the type of grief they have,” Kessler said. “We have a primal need for our grief to be witnessed. Our psyche doesn’t want us to be an island of grief. We need each other and grief is a universal connector.”
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