The Grief of Losing a Parent Is Complex — Here’s How to Start Navigating It
The finality of death can feel almost unbelievable, particularly when it strikes a parent, someone whose presence in your life may have never wavered.
You finished growing up and successfully reached adulthood, but you still needed (and expected to have) your parents for years to come.
The loss of their support, guidance, and love can leave a vast emptiness and pain that might seem impossible to heal, even if their death was expected.
Or, maybe you and your parent were estranged or had a complicated relationship, resulting in a roller coaster of conflicting emotions.
Yet the world at large may expect you to recover from your grief fairly quickly — after the prescribed 3 days of bereavement leave, perhaps padded with a few extra days of personal time — and get back to business.
There’s no right or wrong way to grieve the loss of a parent, but these strategies can offer a starting place as you begin to acknowledge your loss.
Sadness is common after the loss of a parent, but it’s also normal for other feelings to take over. You may not feel sad, and that’s OK, too. Perhaps you only feel numb, or relieved they’re no longer in pain.
Grief opens the gate to a flood of complicated, often conflicting emotions. Your relationship with your parent might have had plenty of challenges, but it still represented an important key to your identity.
They created you, or adopted and chose to raise you, and became your first anchor in the world.
After such a significant loss, it’s only natural to struggle or experience difficulties coming to terms with your distress.
You might experience:
- anger or frustration
- guilt, perhaps for not contacting them frequently or not being present for their death
- shock and emotional numbness
- confusion, disbelief, or a sense of unreality
- hopelessness or despair
- physical pain
- mental health symptoms, including depression or thoughts of suicide
- relief that they’re no longer in pain
No matter how the loss hits you, remember this: Your feelings are valid, even if they don’t line up with what others think you “should” feel.
People react to grief in different ways, but it’s important to let yourself feel all of your feelings.
There’s no single right way to grieve, no set amount of time after which you can automatically expect to feel better, no stages or steps of grief to check off a list. This in itself can be difficult to accept.
Denying your feelings may seem like a route toward faster healing. You might also get the message that others expect you to bury your grief and move on before you’ve come to terms with your loss.
Remind yourself grief is a difficult process as well as a painful one. Try to not let the opinions of others sway you.
Some people work through grief in a short time and move forward with the remnants of their sadness safely tucked away. Others need more time and support, no matter how expected the death was.
If your parent passed after a long illness, you may have had more time to prepare, but no amount of preparation makes your grief any less significant when it hits. You might still feel stunned and disbelieving, especially if you held out hope for their recovery to the very end.
The unexpected death of a parent still in middle age, on the other hand, may force you to confront your own mortality, a battle that can also complicate grief.
Grief often has a significant impact on daily life:
- Your state of mind might change rapidly, without warning.
- You might notice sleep problems, more or less of an appetite, irritability, poor concentration, or increased alcohol or substance use.
- You might find it tough to work, take care of household tasks, or see to your own basic needs.
- The need to wrap up your parent’s affairs may leave you overwhelmed, particularly if you have to handle this task alone.
Some people find comfort in the distraction of work, but try to avoid forcing yourself to return before you feel ready, if possible. People often throw themselves into work, taking on more than they can comfortably handle to avoid scaling the ever-present wall of painful emotions.
Finding a balance is key. Some distraction can be healthy, provided you still make time to address your feelings.
It might seem difficult, even inconsiderate, to dedicate time to self-care, but prioritizing your health becomes even more important as you recover from your loss.
Keep these tips in mind:
- Get enough sleep. Set aside 7 to 9 hours each night for sleep.
- Avoid skipping meals. If you don’t feel hungry, choose nutritious snacks and small meals of mood-boosting foods.
- Hydrate. Drink plenty of water.
- Keep moving. Stay active to energize yourself and help raise your spirits. Even a daily walk can help.
- Aim for moderation. If you drink alcohol, try to stay within recommended guidelines. It’s understandable to want to numb your pain, but increased alcohol use can have health consequences.
- Reset. Rest and recharge with fulfilling hobbies, such as gardening, reading, art, or music.
- Be mindful. Meditating or keeping a grief journal can help you process emotions.
- Speak up. Talk to your healthcare provider about any new physical or mental health symptoms. Reach out to friends and other loved ones for support.
Talking to family members and other loved ones about what your parent meant to you and sharing stories can help keep their memory alive.
If you have children, you might tell stories about their grandparent or carry on family traditions that were important in your childhood.
It might feel painful at first to reminisce, but you may find that your grief begins to ease as the stories start flowing.
If you feel unable to openly talk about your parent for the moment, it can also help to collect photographs of special times or write them a letter expressing your grief about their passing.
Not everyone has positive memories of their parents, of course. And people often avoid sharing negative memories about people who’ve passed. If they abused, neglected, or hurt you in any way, you may wonder whether there’s any point to dredging up that old pain.
If you’ve never discussed or processed what happened, however, you might find it even harder to heal and move forward after their death. Opening up to a therapist or someone else you trust can help lighten the load.
Many people find that specific actions can help honor a deceased parent and offer a measure of comfort.
You might consider:
- creating a small home memorial with photos and mementos
- planting their favorite tree or flower in your backyard
- adopting their pet or plants
- continuing work they found meaningful, like volunteering or other community service
- donating to their preferred charity or organization
Upon hearing the news that an estranged parent has passed away, you might feel lost, numb, angry, or surprised by your grief. You might even feel cheated of the opportunity to address past trauma or unresolved hurt.
Life doesn’t always give us the answers we seek or the solutions we crave. Sometimes you just have to accept inadequate conclusions, however unfinished or painful they feel.
Knowing you can no longer address the past might leave you feeling as if you’re doomed to carry that hurt forever.
Instead of clutching tight to any lingering bitterness, try viewing this as an opportunity to let go of the past and move forward — for your sake.
Some things are truly difficult to forgive, but harboring resentment only harms you, since there’s no one left to receive it.
A letter can help you express things previously left unsaid and take the first steps toward processing the painful and complex feelings left after their death. Working with a therapist can also help you begin to heal the pain of the past.
Friends and loved ones may not know exactly what to say if they haven’t faced the same type of loss, but their presence can still help you feel less alone.
It’s normal to need time to mourn privately, but at the same time, completely isolating yourself generally doesn’t help. The companionship and support of those closest to you can help keep you from being overwhelmed by your loss.
Beyond providing a supportive presence, friends can also help out with meals, child care, or handling errands.
Just be sure to let others know what you need.
If you want to talk about your parent, you might ask if they’re able to listen. If you’d like a break from thinking about their death, you might ask them to join you in a distracting activity, whether that’s playing a game, watching a movie, or working on a project around the house.
You might notice family relationships begin to change after your parent’s death.
Your remaining parent, if still living, may now look to you and your siblings for support. Your siblings, if you have any, are facing the same loss. Their unique relationship with your parent can mean they experience the loss differently than you do, too.
Yet family bonds can provide comfort during grief. You’ve experienced the same loss, even though that person meant something different to each of you.
If you cherish your family relationships, make an effort to strengthen those bonds and draw closer together.
This might mean reaching out more often than in the past or inviting them more regularly to visit and participate in family gatherings.
It can also mean listening with empathy when a sibling who had a difficult relationship with your parent now finds it hard to come to terms with their conflicting emotions.
Friends and loved ones may offer comfort, but a grief support group can fulfill a different kind of social need by connecting you to others who have experienced similar losses.
It’s not uncommon to feel irritated or frustrated when people in your life who haven’t experienced loss attempt to console you or express messages of concern.
No matter how kind or well intentioned their words are, they simply don’t understand what you’re going through.
In a support group, you can find a shared understanding, along with validation of the emotions you feel unable to express to anyone else.
There’s no shame in needing extra support as you begin processing your parent’s death. In fact, many counselors specialize in providing grief support.
A therapist can offer validation and guidance as you begin working through the complex emotions that tend to accompany grief. Grief counselors can also teach coping strategies you can use as you begin adjusting to life without your parent.
Therapy also offers a safe space to unpack any guilt, anger, resentment, or other lingering emotions around a deceased parent’s toxic or hurtful behavior, and to achieve some level of closure.
If you want to forgive your parent but feel unsure how to begin, a therapist can provide compassionate support.
Our guide to finding affordable therapy can help you get started.
Grief after a parent’s death can drain you and leave you reeling, no matter what kind of relationship you had.
Remember, grieving is a normal, healthy process, one that looks different for everyone. Treat yourself with kindness and compassion, embracing patience as you take the time you need to work through your loss.
Crystal Raypole has previously worked as a writer and editor for GoodTherapy. Her fields of interest include Asian languages and literature, Japanese translation, cooking, natural sciences, sex positivity, and mental health. In particular, she’s committed to helping decrease stigma around mental health issues.
Last medically reviewed on October 13, 2020