Grieving the Death of a Parent

BY: Carol Staudacher


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If you did not have a mutual loving relationship with your parent, your responses to his or her death will, of course, reflect that missing bond. You may have been the victim of emotional or physical abuse; you may have had to care for yourself at too early an age; you may have witnessed parental acts of violence or impropriety. Or your parent may have revealed some unpleasant, disturbing information to you before dying. For any number of reasons, you may now be struggling with feelings of relief and release along with feelings of disappointment, dismay, guilt, anger or yearning. You wish that you could have your parent say or do the things you longed for. You wish you could understand the rejection you suffered. You may even feel robbed of the opportunity to express your anger toward your parent.

In cases such as these, grief is set in a context of unfinished business that causes a great deal of anxiety. It's important to recognize your ambivalence, or even dislike, and not be reluctant to explore and express negative feelings for fear of experiencing guilt. Working through both guilt and anger will help you to successfully come to terms with the loss. In a sense, you lost your parent before your parent died; coping now with the actual physical death means allowing your lifetime's accumulation of past conflicts and hurts to be given their due attention.

Regardless of the particular circumstances of your loss, it is essential to express all of your emotions and to discuss your most frequent thoughts and challenges in regard to your grief. You can do this in several ways--by setting up times to talk with a friend who has also lost a parent, by joining a support group, or by talking with a pastor or counselor. What's important is that you can allow the feelings that occupy you, sometimes even overwhelm you, to come to the surface without apology. By sharing with others, you can more fully recognize just what issues are especially troublesome to you, which emotions seem all encompassing and what you are missing the most and why. Painful as it may be to face these powerful feelings, this is the route to healing.

Explore the nature of your relationship with your parent, focusing on the most important or challenging aspects. It also helps to talk or write about your parent's perception of you. How did your parent's understanding of you differ from, or coincide with, the understanding you have of yourself? How did that affect you? You may even like to express your fears, yearnings, or anxieties to a photograph of your parent. You can say things you wish you had said before the death, explain your actions or views, affirm your love, confide your less than positive thoughts. Seeking release in this way is perfectly acceptable and not unusual during the first year or so of the grieving process.

Second, you may find it calming and reassuring to keep a physical reminder of your mother or father near you. Any item that was integral to your parent's life or was especially important to him or her will suffice--a pin, a watch, a hairbrush, a letter, a shirt or robe. It will serve not only as a personal treasure but as tangible proof of your parent's individuality and attachments. At first, the selected object or article of clothing is an inanimate "companion" during grief, even a talisman, a comfort; later it becomes something which may be used to prompt a vibrant memory of a parent, to bring him or her back quickly and clearly.

Third, memorializing your parent in a special way is comforting. You may, for example, make a tape recording or video of memories in which you and others share stories, anecdotes or observations about your mother or father. Or you may choose to write a journal about your parent's life, including accomplishments, values, goals, background, wishes, mannerisms--anything and everything that is significant to you.

Fourth, think about what to keep and what to give away, not just of your parent's possessions but of your parent's beliefs, personality traits, habits, skills, aims, loves. Which of those will continue to reside in you? Which ones will you nurture? Which bring you less peace and comfort and can be let go? Through you, parts of your parent's individuality and influence can thread through each day ahead, each year, adding to the tapestry of your life and the lives that follow yours. In that dedicated way, your parent will never die.

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