Grieving the Loss of a Parent
By Karen Monts
A person once said to me, “Losing a parent to me is like giving birth to a child… you want to tell everyone about it—what it’s like—but then you realize people have been losing parents since the beginning of time.”
What she said brought a great awareness to me. How ironic and true, losing a parent is not a new thought, idea, or concept, but yet in still- when someone’s parent dies, it’s a new experience for that person. No one else had this parent, no one else shared the experiences with this parent, and no one else had the relationship, good or bad, with this parent, nor shared the ups and the downs. So yes, it is something that the grieving child may need to share with others, because her/his situation is unique- I didn’t have your father for a parent, I don’t have the same grief experience that you have, my mother didn’t die like yours, the memories are different. This makes it very distinctive and rare, yet there is a sharing of commonality with billions of others; the death of a parent or both parents.
Then there is the arrival of spring. Leaves are appearing on the trees, the smell of fresh flowers, vegetables and fruits in the open-air market, flowers beginning to peek from their restful winter rest—all evidence that summer will soon be here. Most people look forward to this time of year with excitement and promising expectations, but for the person who is facing this time of year after the death of a parent, it can bring anxiety and retrigger those feelings of grief that were believed to have been gone. The questions arise, Will I ever feel better? Wasn’t I over this? Will I ever be able to smile again on Mother’s Day? Will Father’s Day always bring tears?
“No matter how long the winter, spring is sure to follow,” a famous quote reads. But what makes losing a parent difficult? Why is the winter so long? After all, it’s expected that a parent may die before you. But anytime one experiences the loss of anything or anybody of significance, there will be grief. Grief is the normal and natural response to a loss. The reactions can vary from depression to anger, forgetfulness to lack of concentration, hopelessness to lack of sleep. The word grief sums up the many many feelings and changes a person experiences as he journeys through the pain of a loss. The death of a parent can be a tremendous loss for several reasons. It has often been stated that when a parent dies, you also grieve your past. Therefore, as you begin to grieve the absence of your parent, thoughts of the past may flood your soul. When you engage in traditions and rituals passed down from your parent, emotions can be retriggered, as you are reminded that the one who passed it down to you is no longer there. But as you journey towards healing, the intensity of the pain and the retriggering lessens over time.
Still, there can be the grieving of the future—future plans, hopes, and dreams. The hope that Dad would have walked you down the aisle or that Mother would have been able to baby-sit her grandchildren. The death of a parent can bring grief in shattered dreams and hopes; leaving one to cherish the memory of the occasions and events that your parent could attend, be there for, and have the opportunity to share in. For some, the grief is also in the loss of the advice and wisdom of a parent. What if the parent was the only person who could comfort you after a rough time, like a death of someone special? Maybe the parent was the best friend, the shopping buddy, a confidant, the babysitter, or a marriage counselor. Whatever the case may be, it’s individual. But, when grieving the death of a parent, you may be grieving the loss of so many other roles the person held in your life. Most evident is the fact that a person who was important and loved is no longer present. Or there can be the grief of what the relationship was not or never became despite the hope that one day it would be. These are only a few of the reasons why the loss of a parent can be difficult, even if expected. And remember, when there is a faith that your parent is now in a “better place,” this can bring comfort, but grief is not about where the parent went, it’s about where he or she has left. It is the absence of the presence here with you. Your grief is real and acceptable, and the question may be, how do I cope?
How do you deal with Father’s Day displays in the stores, and the Mother’s Day commercials?
First, recognize the normalcy of your feelings. You are not crazy, nor are you “not getting better.” Even if it has been some time since the death, the holiday season can cause unexpected emotions. Recognize that this may happen and allow yourself to shed tears if you need to.
Realize the expectation of the approaching day can be worse than the actual day. Seek ways to honor the memory of your parent on that day. Tree planting, family gatherings or attending the parent’s church are some of the many ways people have found helpful on such occasions.
It’s okay to accept invitations or seek opportunities to spend the day with friends, a favorite aunt, or maybe another person who shares a similar loss.
Don’t be afraid to change family traditions. There are no rules governing how you may feel or react to special days. Know your own limitations, and try not to yield to other’s expectations for you which may clash with your own.
Hold on to the hope that this season may have changed for you forever, but it won’t always be difficult to face. It may well become a time to commemorate your parent’s life, and cherish what you learned and received from their life.
And remember, although people have been mourning the death of a parent since the beginning of time, your grief is unique. And like your grief, so will your experience be, so will your journey be, so will be the arrival of your spring to remind you that summer will soon follow.
In the depths of winter I finally learned that within me
there lay an invincible summer. - Albert Camus