American poet Maya Angelou once said, “I can accept the idea of my own demise, but I’m unable to accept the death of anyone else”. Most of us can empathise with this, especially when it comes to losing a parent. Indeed, the death of a parent is surely one of the most stressful events we can experience, and although it's an inevitable fact of life, this doesn’t minimise the impact when it comes to dealing with it.
This traumatic experience of parental loss can cause disruption to our lives in ways we never imagined, leaving us feeling vulnerable and unsure how to act and cope. Grieving is a profound experience involving feelings of shock, numbness, denial, anger, sadness, and despair that sometimes come together creating a hurricane of strong emotions that may last for months. As harrowing as this can be, there are some positive steps you can take when dealing with the death of a parent.
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Quoted on fatherly.com, psychiatrist Dr. Nikole Benders-Hadi says, “In the best-case scenario, the death of a parent is anticipated and there’s time for families to prepare, say their goodbyes, and surround themselves with support. In cases where a death is unexpected, such as with an acute illness or traumatic accident, adult children may remain in the denial and anger phases of the loss for extended periods of time… [leading to] diagnosis of major depressive disorder or even PTSD, if trauma is involved.”
Researchers have discovered that dealing with the grief of losing a parent is so hard because the feelings of loss affect the brain directly. The grieving process sends the amygdala (the part of the brain that regulates emotions of distress) into overdrive, and makes the brain release stress hormones, including cortisol. This interferes with thinking and acting, making grief exhausting and overpowering. A few studies have even linked unresolved grief with cardiac events, hypertension, immune disorders, and even cancer.
Photo scrapbooks can help when dealing with parental loss shutterstock/LightField Studios
Other research show that grieving over a parent's death can lead to increased risks of long-term emotional and mental health issues. Losing a parent has been linked to higher rates of depression, low confidence, anxiety, low academic performance, and addiction problems. And, according to psychologists, these risks can be higher if loss happens during childhood or before reaching adulthood.
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Quoted in the Los Angeles Times, David Kessler, the founder of grief.com, believes many adults — regardless of their age — struggle with feeling like an orphan following the death of a parent. He said: “I try to remind them that you still stay connected with that person even in death.”
It’s also worth mentioning that the emotional storm caused by grief can happen irrespective of the type of relationship we had with our parents – good or bad. Indeed, the impact is bound to be strong because of the nature of the parent-child bond, which is one of the most fundamental aspects of human experience.
“Losing a parent has been linked to higher rates of depression, low confidence and anxiety.”
Additionally, researchers have found that gender influences the impact of parental death due to attachment between fathers and sons and mothers and daughters. Several studies suggest that daughters and sons process the loss of a parent differently, with daughters reporting more upsetting emotions and being more likely to experience the physical symptoms of grief.
After losing a parent, it’s normal to feel that you can’t cope. Here are six suggestions on how to navigate this difficult time and find direction when dealing with the grief of losing a parent.
One of the most important things to remember is the uniqueness of grief. Some people may not express their emotions openly; others may look as if they’ve recovered faster than you, but that doesn’t mean they’re not grieving – perhaps they're just doing it in a different way.
Grief from losing a parent doesn’t have a beginning and an end: it comes with many ups and downs. Certain days, names, or places may arise a wave of sorrow, but that doesn’t mean you’re failing to heal. Also, remember that if you feel the intensity of grief decreasing, this doesn’t mean you’ve forgotten your parent or are dishonouring their memory in any way.
There will be times when you may want to be alone and that’s OK, but try not to make a habit of isolation. Remember that people are there for you, whether they’re neighbours, friends, relatives or counsellors.
Reach out: when you lose a parent, seek a helping hand
After losing a parent, you’ll probably search for answers or try to explain why this had to happen. There may not be a definite answer, but the journey of exploration is part of the healing process. Meaning-making can come from religious beliefs or other forms of understanding spirituality.
Journaling is another way of finding meaning and making sense of what the experience means to you. Writing is a powerful tool that can help you work through your emotions instead of bottling them up.
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One of the reasons why grief is so overpowering is that we tend to perceive it as the end of the road. While the parent you’ve lost is no longer with you physically, their legacy lives on and it’s worth finding productive ways of honouring your parent and commemorating their lives.
Debra J. Umberson, professor of sociology at the University of Texas at Austin, says: “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. Consider planting a tree in their memory, so you can visit it. If that's not possible, try creating a virtual space online or creating a photo and memory scrapbook you can look at whenever you want to be close to your parent.
The emotional impact of grief can make it difficult to see the light at the end of the tunnel. However, you should know that you’re not alone in this experience. Self-care and strong bonds with others are more important than ever when dealing with the loss of loved ones. Try to put in practice some of the suggestions we’ve offered to cope with the grieving process and find a way to keep purpose in your life even after losing a parent. ●
Main image: shutterstock/Pixel-Shot
If you're struggling with the death of a parent or have some ideas on how to cope with the loss, our community would love to hear from you. Head over to our Forum post on the loss of a loved one and get the conversation started.
A social sciences graduate with a keen interest in languages, communication, and personal development strategies. Dee loves exercising, being out in nature, and discovering warm and sunny places where she can escape the winter.
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