Although most of us expect our parents to die before us, many adults are surprised by the complexity and depth of our grief when our mother or father dies.
It can be very painful when your parent dies after a long and happy life. If they died unexpectedly or while younger this can be very difficult to cope with.
For many of us, the death of a parent is a significant loss. It changes many aspects of our lives, and will have an impact on the whole family. Feelings may be complicated. There is no ‘right’ way to grieve, and everyone experiences bereavement differently. However, there are some common feelings that many people share, and these can painful, surprising or even frightening.
In every day life my grief and the circumstances of the bereavement could feel like a huge anvil I carried round on my shoulders and tried not to drop clumsily into conversation.
Different feelings after a parent dies
As well as shock, grief or numbness, people often feel regret, guilt or anger. We may feel very differently from one moment to the next, and the feelings can often contradict each other. They may come upon us when least expected, which can be confusing and distressing.
We can feel lost after the death of a mother or father. Suddenly we may find ourselves feeling like a child again, even though we are adults with jobs, families and lives of our own.
- Losing a parent may mean losing one of the people who thought we were the most special, and who loved us unconditionally. Alternatively, if we had a difficult or estranged relationship with a parent, we can feel a grief for what never was, or for a relationship it is not now possible to heal.
- The death of a parent can bring home the inevitability of our own death, and perhaps make it seem nearer than it was before.
- The balance of generations changes when a parent dies. Before we were still someone’s child, now we can find ourselves the older generation and that can be a shock.
- Losing a parent, or both parents, means we may also have lost a connection to our own childhood. We have lost someone who could talk to us about our own early years, and share memories in a way no-one else can.
Effect on other relationships
There is no one way for families to deal with their grief. A death in the family can bring people together, but it can also create tension. It can wake up old arguments and rivalry between brothers and sisters. Some families are able to support one another, but there may be also be individual members who don’t want to (or can’t) share their feelings and prefer to be left alone. Relationships between partners can also be affected.
If one parent has died, our relationship with the parent who is still alive may change. We may have always thought of our parents together, as a partnership, and now find ourselves getting to know the remaining parent as a separate person. As time goes on, we may also have to cope with a parent starting a new relationship.
After the death of a parent, many people experience a change in the way they see themselves and the way others see them. We may have looked after an ill parent for some time or had regular contact, and this role has now disappeared. This can come as a release and also a loss. It can lead to a sense of isolation.
Read more about the death of a parent in our booklet: When your parent dies: insights for bereaved adults.
How to support yourself after the death of a parent
1. Talk to someone
Talking can be really helpful, even if it is over the phone, internet or social media. Often family or friends can help. You might also be able to talk to someone in your community, or to a faith or spiritual leader. Talk to your GP if your health is suffering.
2. Find ways to remember them
It can help to think of ways you can remember your parent, and keep them as part of your life. This might mean keeping a few special possessions, creating a memory box or special album of pictures, or organising a time for family and friends to come together and remember.
3. Plan ahead on anniversaries
Birthdays, anniversaries and Mothers and Fathers Day can be difficult after someone close to us dies. It can help to think in advance about how you are going to manage. Read our tips on coping with anniversaries.
How can you help someone after their parent dies?
1. Stay in contact
2. Let them discuss their feelings
Allow them to be open about their grief and about their parent – talking can be one of the most helpful things after someone dies.
3. Be there for important dates
4. Suggest useful organisations
As well as the usual feelings that come with losing a parent, the death of a step-parent may come with a number of different emotions specific to the relationship you had with them.
Whether you're feeling shocked, sad, confused or nothing at all. It’s important to allow space for your feelings and know that it's totally okay to feel what you’re feeling.
Common experiences after the loss of a step-parent include:
- Guilt - If you had a difficult relationship with your step-parent you may feel a sense of longing or regret for a connection that never was.
- Exclusion - when someone dies, community support is often focused on the partner or biological children of the person who died. Step-children may therefore feel left out of the grieving process.
- Worries about family ties - the loss of a step-parent may put a strain on relationships with step-siblings and other family members. You may be concerned about losing the relationship you’ve nurtured with step-siblings and other extended family members
No matter how you're feeling, we're here to help. Call the Cruse National Helpline to speak to someone about the death of a step-parent.
- Download our free booklet: When your parent dies: insights for bereaved adults
If you are struggling with grief during the pandemic, we have resources on grief and isolation, funerals, and more.
- Find out more about the physical symptoms of grief