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Taking care of a grieving surviving parent whilst grieving yourself

The following guidelines are mostly aimed at children who have lost one of their parents, but they also apply to those who have lost a parent an an older age.

The most important thing is to establish a sense of safety once again. It's difficult to do that when your remaining parent is grieving. It's scary to see the people you rely on for strength seeming so weak.

As a child, you have to deal with very grown-up topics now that one of your parents has died. You are dealing with your own grief, the death of your childhood in a way, and the temporary loss of your other parent as a strong force in your life.

Remember to be as honest as possible

The most important thing is to be honest. Be honest with yourself about what you need in your own mourning process. Be honest with your parent about what you need. Ask them to tell you what they need, when they need to be alone.

It's OK to grieve as a family. Sometimes children, especially teenagers, will try to hide their grief, to be strong for their remaining parent. But letting out your feelings, both you and your parent, is one of the best ways to help each other heal.

How can you help your surviving parent?

After the death of a parent, you may have to take on extra responsibilities around the house. It's great to help out, but that does not mean you have to be the "man of the house" or the "woman of the house." Don't let anyone pressure you into taking on these roles.

Some of the ways you can help your parent are to attend to their needs, listen, be patient and help them to remember holidays and anniversaries. You may want to ask if there are days, perhaps ones you never knew about, that you think might be difficult for your parent. Perhaps your parents used to celebrate the date of their first kiss or they had some other little tradition. Help your parent mourn those days and also celebrate and remember.

Be patient with your parent and with yourself
Sometimes family bonds loosen a little bit after a death in the family. That's OK. You all may need your space to grieve. But try not to shut your family out completely. Just as you need to be patient in your own grieving process, you need to be patient with your parent. Don't get angry if he or she doesn't cry as much as you think is appropriate, or if he or she cries too much in your opinion. Other symptoms of grieving that might have you frustrated are depression, forgetfulness, disorganization, a preoccupation with the loss and lack of motivation.

You might get angry if your parent gives away the deceased's clothing or if he or she has too much trouble letting go. Both of you have to discuss your feelings, so that the tensions don't eat away at the family bonds you'll need to rely on in these times. Grief can cause people to be impatient and snap at their loved ones at times. You must be forgiving of these episodes and know that things will return to normal in time.
Try to grieve in healthy ways

You have to decide as a family that you are going to grieve in healthy ways. Make plans to exercise together as much as you can manage. It's a good idea to just take a walk together, which will give you time to bond and will boost your spirits. Make sure you are both getting enough sleep and enough healthy food, as staying healthy will help your body deal with the stress of mourning.

Seek help from another trusted adult if your parent turns to drugs or alcohol to cope, or if you suspect they may be too depressed and possibly suicidal.

Now is also a good time to talk to each other about family decisions. Many people aren't thinking clearly in the first months after a death.

After a while, the support of friends and others will diminish as they simply forget you are still grieving. It's then that the support of family is most important. Your parent may experience a delayed grief that doesn't truly begin until long after the funeral flowers have wilted.

What about YOU?
And what about you? Take care of yourself. If you can, join a support group. Tell your friends what you need. Maybe you just need a chance to voice your frustration with the situation, or to grieve in a way that you can't in front of your parent.
Here are some of the situations children face when a parent dies:
  • The surviving parent won't let go of their things, even after years. In this case, you'll want to gently offer to help with the painful process of getting rid of all those physical reminders of the person you both loved. Ask him or her what their favorite items are. Offer to keep those, then donate the rest.
  • The surviving parent starts dating soon after the death. This person may be panicking about being alone, or they may just be seeking comfort. Your parent is an adult who can make his or her own decisions. Don't block out the person they're dating. However, you may want to express your feelings and suggest they take it slow.
  • No one in the family will talk about the deceased. A good way to start is just by mentioning fun family stories. People may cry, but that's not necessarily a bad thing. It may help to start an e-mail chain as a way to commemorate anniversaries. Suggest that you each write just one memory. That way, people can grieve in private at their computer, yet still share. It might be a good step to being able to talk about that person together.
  • The remaining parent only wants to "join" the deceased. This may be just a comment that your parent doesn't really mean, and it will pass as they go through their mourning. If you think he or she is serious, seek help immediately. Confront them about whether or not they're serious. Encourage him or her to see a therapist or call a suicide hotline.
  • The parent relies on the child too much for emotional support or taking care of the house. Your parent may be trying to use you as a replacement for the deceased. That's not healthy for them or fair to you. You may want to suggest family counseling. The dependence may only be temporary, but sooner or later, your parent is going to have to face life on their own.
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Further sources of information

You may find our other articles in the Death of family members section helpful too.

Visit our Amazon store to find books on coping with the loss of a parent and grief books for children.

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