It’s natural for adult children to support a grieving parent after their spouse dies, whether that is assisting with arrangements, notifying family and friends or offering comfort. However, once the service is over and friends and relatives return home, your parent’s grief process is just beginning.
Read these seven tips on how to support a grieving parent during this time.
When Christy Monson’s husband, Robert, died from a heart attack in 2018 after 54 years of marriage, she was devastated, but her adult children rallied. A son who lived in town went to be with Monson immediately and one of her daughters arranged the memorial service program. Another went on Facebook to relay the sad news.
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“I was in a daze, unable to think or do the things necessary at the time,” says Monson, author of “Finding Peace in Times of Tragedy,” a book about healing from a family death or other tragedy.
Adult children’s grief is generally marked by sorting through memories of the deceased parent and worrying about changes to come, while the surviving parent faces daily reminders of their loss, says Paula Shaw, a life transitions therapist and author of “Saying the Right Thing When You Don’t Know What to Say.”
“Your parent has been sharing household duties with a spouse and they had all their familiar routines, but now that’s gone,” says Shaw. “That’s a huge disruption in the surviving parent’s life.”
Your parent’s need for support continues long after the funeral, says Kim Mooney, an end-of-life and grief educator in Boulder, Colorado. “Support can’t be just for the first couple of weeks. You have to let the process unfold.”
To complicate matters, your parent may also be grieving secondary losses related to the death, Mooney says. For example, he or she might have to sell the house. Other married friends could drift away, unsure about how to socialize with a grieving, newly single person.
Seemingly innocuous day-to-day triggers can unearth the greatest emotions. “The first time she can’t fix the toilet, the first time he can’t cook, those are moments when people get emotionally upset,” says Mooney. “It’s easy to infantilize your parent, trying to take over and take care of them. We want to rescue people, but the rescue is not helping.”
So, if you can’t rescue your grieving parent from his or her pain, what can you do?
Someone grieving may feel at peace with the world one minute and completely overwhelmed the next. The dad who was the funniest guy in the room might be more reserved, at least for now. The mom known for her sweetness could become irritable more easily. Your parent may even feel embarrassment or shame for being unable to maintain the same social calendar or workout routine. “Your parent may not have the capacity or desire to do what he or she did before,” says Mooney.
It takes a while for a grieving person to rejoin the world. “If it’s too early, they can be blown out just by being in a room full of people,” says Mooney. While you don’t want your parent to be isolated, understand that sometimes Dad or Mom just can’t handle being out in public.
“Isolation is the enemy of healing from grief,” says Shaw. “Take them to lunch. Try to keep them engaged in companionship and life. Be present to their condition or needs.” That could mean making a phone call or keeping in touch by sending videos of grandchildren. If you and your parent attend the same church, offer to pick them up and add lunch to the day. Monson’s son and daughter-in-law stayed with her for two weeks after her husband’s death. One granddaughter sent daily texts and another who lived nearby took Monson out to the opera and symphony and called often. “All of our children called frequently, wanting to know how I was,” says Monson.
Don’t expect the surviving parent to comply with your grief timetable for moving on, says Mooney. If your parent is still in the acute grief process, he or she could later regret donating Dad’s favorite shirt to a thrift store or giving Mom’s pearl necklace to a granddaughter. Instead, offer a place to store the items such as your basement or a storage facility.
Listen to what’s going on with your parent. Most people want to talk about the person who died and a good way to do that is to tell stories about the deceased parent. Pay special attention to the death anniversary, asking your parent if he or she would like to do something in remembrance on that day. “If your parent doesn’t want to do anything, that’s also totally fine,” says Mooney.
“The mind of a grieving person is pretty much like mush,” says Shaw. “It’s hard to focus and they’re certainly not in a place to do research.” To a grieving person, even simple tasks like retrieving the mail can seem overwhelming. Just imagine how daunting it can be for some people to research a part-time job, social groups or volunteer opportunities. Do your own online search to help your parent find social options.
“Bereavement and grieving have devastating effects on the immune system,” says Shaw. Make sure your parent is eating right and getting enough sleep. If you live nearby, drop off a few nutritious food items every week or set up delivery of prepared meals if your parent agrees. Offer to take a walk with Dad or encourage Mom to rejoin her water aerobics group.
Nearly a year after her husband’s death, Monson, a retired therapist, teaches post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) classes for low-income women and works with recovering drug addicts in her community.
Her grief journey is ongoing, but family support helped her get through the critical first months. “I couldn’t have done it alone,” says Monson.
Are you a caregiver who has supported a grieving parent? What other suggestions would you share with caregivers going through this experience? We’d like to hear your tips in the comments below.