How can you go on?

The death of a parent can be a very shocking and life-changing experience. Suddenly the person that you turned to for guidance and advice is no longer there. Who do you call to ask if you should fix the transmission or just buy a new car? Now where do you go when you’ve had a spat with your spouse and need to talk with somebody who loves you no matter what?  Suddenly you may find yourself the oldest generation of the family – “Good grief,” you think to yourself at graveside, “this family is in trouble if I’m the closest thing we’ve got to an elder statesman.” But what if you’re 12? Surely nobody expects you to know what to do … or do they? In the sixth grade, they don’t teach how to pay the mortgage or help your mom when she just starts crying unexpectedly.

What about the kids?

Children need help to cope with their grief when a parent dies. The surviving parent is usually the main one to provide the help a child needs in coming to terms with the death of the other parent. However, often the surviving parent is so involved and even incapacitated by their own grief that other family members need to jump in.  Talk with the child. This may involve a lot of listening. It is very common for the child to have terrible guilt. They heard a bump in the night – if they’d jumped up and done something, anything, Daddy wouldn’t have died from the heart attack. Or they didn’t do their homework and Daddy was really disappointed – and that’s why he had the terrible accident at work. Talk to the child about “false guilt” – feeling guilty about something not their fault. Pray with them to ask forgiveness if they really did have a contributing factor – Daddy died saving them from drowning. Talk to them how Daddy’s watching from Heaven and so proud of them. But mostly listen. Calm little fears. Let tears flow. Cry with this child you love.

Be there

Hold that grieving child’s hand, look them in the eye – and make a commitment: “Listen, Buddy, we are going to miss your Dad something awful, but together we’re gonna make it. You just inherited a big brother. Now, you gotta promise to let me know whenever there’s a problem. If your mom can’t pay the electric bill, I want to hear from you. Promise me. And listen, you are going to college. You and me, we’re going to make it happen. Deal?”

What about you?

But ... what about you? What if you're the one who just lost a mom or dad? You may look like the Rock of Gibraltar, but inside, you’re falling apart. You just lost somebody who was your foundation, your voice of reason, your stability. How can you go on without this person who loved you despite any terrible things you said or did? So, you pulled down the china cabinet when you were three – and broke all of the family heirlooms. Amid the debris, Mom was mostly worried if you were OK. Great Aunt Mathilda’s cup from Queen Victoria can be glued back together. Our parents are often the most influential people in our life. Their death means the loss of someone whose approval is important, whose direction you value above all others.


So, how do you deal with friends who hug you, exclaiming "Oh, well, your dad had a good life, didn't he?" Try not to get angry when they attempt to comfort you, saying, “It must have been his time!” or “God must have needed another angel!” or “He was in such pain. It’s good to know that now he’s with Jesus." Such sentiments come from aching hearts – people who care about you and don’t know how to comfort you. Accept their attempts. They love you.

What if things were bad between you?

What if you’d just had a big fight … and your parent died before you could reconcile? Even worse, what if you hadn’t spoken for years? What if it was an abusive situation – you had to get out of there and are grateful to be a survivor. You may, in all honesty, be glad he or she is dead. If that is the case, there may be a lot of unresolved issues and feelings for you to work through. If so, try to remember the good times. What about that time he took you shopping? Remember how proud you were of your new shoes? Your blue polo shirt that looked just like his? Your first winter parka not handed down from a cousin? How he advised you to buy your first Levis too big and too long – and as soon as you got home, helped you wash them twice in hot water and tumble them dry … and he was right! Now they fit perfectly and you looked very, very cool?

Hold onto those memories

Remember when he held your hand and you got on the big, tall Ferris wheel together and he held you tight as the whole world spread out below you -- and you weren’t scared because you were in your Daddy’s arms.

What about your brothers and sisters?

Parents are often the glue that holds a family together. Their death may mean the breakup of the family. Now there’s no reason to go home for Christmas. There’s nowhere to go for Easter. A parent’s death may increase tension among the survivors – particularly if one has been a caretaker and resents the others’ lack of involvement. What if the caretaker inherits the bulk of the estate? Or none of it – with all of the property going to the favorite, who is a gambling addict who skips the funeral to fly to Vegas?  Tensions among siblings that have been suppressed for years can explode following a parent's death. Mom always loved you more. Dad spent our childhood coaching your state championship team – while the rest of us sat at home and comforted Mom. 

Well, is family important?

Your family is vital. Let your brothers and sisters know how much you love them – and how the past is the past. Apologize. Don’t be upset if they don’t. Make solid commitments to get together for the Fourth of July out on the lake to shoot off rockets just like Dad loved to do from his rowboat. Your relationships are far more important than any things or money. So what if your brother inherits the 1780s turtleshell comb set? Remember what fun you had when you were five and he was two? Rekindle that love. Stuff is just stuff. But love is eternal.

Can you go on?

You're going to make it. Of course you can. Your late parent would have wanted nothing more than for you to be happy and successful. So, embrace that legacy. Make ‘em proud!  The death of your parents may elevate you to the older generation in your family. Now there’s nothing between you and eternity. No buffer – no older generation that has to go first. You may find yourself dealing with the reality of your own mortality. Suddenly, you are an orphan. You can no longer "go home."  Resist any temptation to dismiss their death as "timely" or "inevitable." You’ve experienced a significant loss and need to grieve. Keep the lines of communication open between you and your siblings. They understand more than anyone what you’ve lost.

Find a close friend with whom you can talk

Some friends can’t talk to you about something like this. But ask one or two for permission to use them as sounding boards. There are also professionals you may call on: your doctor, your clergy, a counselor or your funeral director. Although your parent is physically dead, he or she will continue to live through you. The values your parent gave you will affect you – for better, or worse – for the rest of your life. Take what is good from them and incorporate it more fully into your life … and be thankful for the good you received.

It may take years

There are no hard and fast rules when it comes to grief and expressing loss. You may mourn for years. Go ahead and grieve. But focus on the positive. Remember how he stuck with teaching you how to catch? It was important to him that you be able to shag that ball from centerfield and be the hometown hero. Remember how she beamed with pride at your karate promotion ceremony? When the Sensei with the unpronounceable name proclaimed that you were a Green Belt!

Enshrine those moments

Close your eyes and remember when you did crazy things together.  When you were so pleased to hear people say you looked just like him. Or the time you were terrified at the talent show and stared out at the crowd. And there, standing up to make sure you knew he was there, was your Dad. Both thumbs up. Grinning at you with delight. His eyes said, “Yes, you can do this.” And when you were done, he applauded  like a lunatic as if you had won American Idol? Even though you didn’t win anything? But in the car home, he went on and on about how the judges had been paid off? And even you knew that was unlikely for a middle school talent show!

Precious memories

Or the time your mom walked all the way home with you, dragging your second-grade class’s Christmas tree that the teacher insisted she accept – since you had confessed your family had no tree? Or when your dad watched silently as you changed the brakes on your first car. He nodded approvingly when you attached the C-clamps, then cleared his throat in warning when you didn’t check the fastening clips? And proclaimed that his daughter was the only 16-year-old on the street who’d never have to go to Midas! Hold on to those memories. Nurture the wonderful.

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