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Common Emotional Responses to the Death of Your Parents

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“I don’t know why this is hitting me so hard!” My client began telling me, her counselor, about how she was experiencing the death of her estranged mother. Her childhood had been one of pain, abuse, and emotional manipulation. Even though they hadn’t been in contact for many years, the finality of her mom’s death caused a deep emotional response she was not expecting.

Even though we expect to lose our parents at some point in life, nothing can fully prepare us emotionally for their death. People are often surprised by how it hits them. When that time comes, it helps to understand that your responses are not unusual. The Kubler-Ross model of the five stages of grief is denial, anger, bargaining, depression, and acceptance. Additional elements of grief are normal when dealing with the death of a parent. Here are a few of them.

Unresolved childhood pain resurfaces

Even if you had a great childhood it probably wasn’t without moments of disappointment, feeling neglected, being unheard, misunderstood, or overlooked. Sometimes larger issues of¬†abandonment, neglect, and abuse were a reality. These things can resurface when the offending parent passes away. It’s important to not devalue what you are feeling but take this opportunity to process through them and find resolution in your heart. You may be able to do this on your own by writing a letter to your parent and expressing anger, and ultimately forgiveness. It may also be important to seek out a counselor or therapist to help you deal with this unresolved pain.

Inability to resolve conflict or to say good-bye

The finality of death means you never got to say you’re sorry for things you regret. You never got to hear your parent apologize or own up to the ways they hurt you. And if your parent died suddenly, you were denied a moment to say good-bye. No matter how old you are, some part of you may have idealized your parent who either never lived up to that ideal or so filled it that your hero is now gone. Talking these things out can be really helpful. Share what you are feeling with a trusted friend, pastor, or counselor. Writing out the things you wish you could say to your parent is also helpful.

Loss of extended family unit

Having our parents alive is a connecting point for us and our siblings, aunts, uncles, and cousins. When our parents pass on, it’s not uncommon for the extended family unit to become fractured. This means you are experiencing the loss of your parent(s) and also of your family unit. Allow yourself to grieve these losses. Express your desire to stay connected to your loved ones and develop a solid plan for this connection.

The distribution of your parent’s possessions

Just as you are dealing with the realities of your parent’s death, you are also dealing with the loss of their possessions. This may mean the sale and distributing of heirlooms, sentimental treasures, a childhood home, and things that represent family to you. Your siblings and possible remaining parent may make decisions in their own grief that are hurtful to you. Inheritance and wills can cause division and conflict to those left behind.

Grieving in front of your kids

Remember, your kids are also experiencing the loss of someone. Regardless of your relationship with your parent, your children had a different relationship with them. Don’t overlook your children while you are hurting. Give them space to express how they feel. Process anger, frustrations, fears, and intense pain in private. It’s okay for them to see you feel sadness. It’s healthy for them to know that sadness exists and that you can get through it. But they need to be protected from your overwhelmingly intense feelings. Avoid leaning on them for support. Find adults to lean on during this time.

Tell us! What has been the toughest loss you have experienced?


How can I help when you feel sad?

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