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Grieving the Loss of a Parent

How do you deal with the death of a parent?

The loss of a parent is one of the worst universal experiences people live through. Even as adults, the passing of a parent will leave a person feeling alone and unsupported. Seldom do people realise how much they depend upon their parent until they lose them. Hence, the loss of a parent can create incomparable feelings of aloneness.

Healing from parental bereavement thus depends on reconnection and confidence in your own ability to continue life without your parent. Parents work as an anchor to us; they are the constant holding us steady, providing safety and comfort independent of our personal circumstances. When a parent dies, feelings of insecurity are thus common. 

This guide will detail the stages of grief as they pertain to the loss of a parent, and how to thrive and process your emotions at each stage.

The Seven Stages of Grief When Loosing a Mum or Dad

The concept of the five distinct stages of grief was theorised by Dr. Elisabeth Kubler-Ross in 1969. These five stages include:

  • Denial.
  • Anger.
  • Bargaining.
  • Depression.
  • Acceptance.

Modern psychology has expanded on her initial theory however, proposing a new seven-stage process of guilt processing. This concept allows for a more holistic understanding of the process of grieving than can be derived from the five-stage model. This seven-stage model of grieving includes the following stages:

  • Shock and disbelief.
  • Denial.
  • Guilt.
  • Anger and bargaining.
  • Depression and reflection.
  • Reconstruction and conceptualisation.
  • Acceptance.

These phases and how they relate to your own process of grieving will be explained below. Do not be alarmed if you experience these stages in a different order; often people will move from one phase to another depending on their personal journey processing grief. Remember, healing is seldom linear.

Shock and Disbelief

This phase is characterised by an inability to comprehend what happened to your loved one. This is a natural reaction derived from your brain attempted to protect you from emotional harm. After the loss of a parent, this phase can be elongated. This is because it can be particularly hard to process the death of a parent due to the highly emotional consequences of the loss. More so than in the passing of other loved ones, the passing of a parent represents a great life change. Hence, many will remain in shock indefinitely after parental loss, unable to face the life change they are faced with.

During this phase, you should show yourself compassion and flexibility. Understand if you lack emotional responses at first after the passing: your emotions will freely express themselves once you’re in a safe position to grieve. 

Denial

The denial phase of grieving is somewhat inaccurately named. This phase does not include periods of conscious denial- instead, this phase is characterised by intentional distraction and ignorance surrounding the loss. Again, in the case of losing a parent, this phase may be extended due to the sheer significance of the loss. Moving past your grief means moving past denial. You must come to terms with the loss to heal. 

Guilt

One of the least regarded symptoms of grief is guilt. Especially after death, guilt is a particular burden. Often people wonder whether they did enough to stop the death, or even may blame themselves for the death outright. This guilt is unhealthy and during this phase, your focus should be on dispelling any guilt you place on yourself. Once you no longer feel any guilt, you will be able to process through your grief healthily.

Guilt is highly contentious in the processing of grief. Research by neuropsychologists Joa et al. published in 2021 proves the impact of guilt on grief processing, detailing that guilt is integral in the development of Prolonged Grief Disorder. Guilt is so deleterious in any psychological processing because it reduces the prerogative of the sufferer to engage in self-care. This can catalyse a rapid degeneration of mental health and also inhibits emotional processing and healing.

Anger and Bargaining

This phase is keenly intertwined with the guilt phase because of the reciprocal nature of the two phases. Often, angry thoughts directed at the deceased or others will cause guilt in the grieving person. This can cause a cyclic re-experiencing of the guilt and anger phases with no real resolution. This can lead to Prolonged Grief Disorder, wherein sufferers cannot escape the cycle of thinking angry thoughts and then hating themselves for feeling them.

Hence, if you find yourself feeling anger at the deceased or others close to you, show yourself compassion and understand that your feelings are natural and nothing to feel guilty about. Allow yourself to experience the full breadth of your emotions without judgement and they will soon pass, allowing you to move past the grief you are experiencing.

Depression and Reflection

During this period, you will truly feel the full extent of your sadness. Often during this period, those suffering from grief will cycle between numbness and overwhelming sadness. Typically, this phase begins eight months after loss, though this is highly variable. People may treat you differently during this period; others, especially those who have never experienced grief. They may struggle to understand why you still feel so badly months after the bereavement. Don’t let this bother you; their ideas are based in ignorance. All you must focus on is self-compassion during this period of great turmoil in your life.

Reconstruction and Conceptualisation

Mental resilience is regained, and you’ll begin to feel able to cope better with the trials of daily life during this period. You will begin to feel more able to cope without your parent, and though you may still have sad or angry thoughts, these won’t bother you as much as they once did. You can begin to reconnect with people and find purpose in your hobbies again. 

This phase of grief is characterised by an enhanced focus on logistical issues in your life, rather than the emotional. This is when you will build your new life sans your parent. Of course, this is still incredibly challenging, but from here forward you create an enjoyable life for yourself to continue without your parent. 

Acceptance

This is not a phase characterised by complete peace, as the name may suggest. Instead, this is a phase wherein a lot of pain remains inside you, though it slowly begins to subside over time. I’m sure you’ll be comforted to hear that the pain doesn’t stay forever. The sadness will hit you when you think of your lost parent, but you’ll no longer feel the terrible pain that takes your breath away and leaves you winded.

This phase will have you planning for future events, and you’ll begin to look forward to things again. Life will return to relative normalcy, and it’ll become clearer by the day that you can be happy again. You may feel guilt for this, which could inhibit your processing of grief. Release yourself from these shackles of guilt and allow yourself to feel the happiness you deserve after a long period of grief.

Frequently Asked Questions

How Long Does It Take To Feel Normal After Losing A Parent?

The first six months after grief are typically when you feel the most pain. However, this is highly variable and depends on the extent to which you can process and accept the tragic loss. Furthermore, the grief may re-emerge on special dates, such as your parent’s birthday. Expect this, and plan self-care and pampering for that day to help you retain normalcy.

Is It Normal To Cry Every Day After A Death?

Often after bereavement, you’ll hear lots of ‘advice’ from well-meaning loved ones telling you not to dwell on the loss. This may leave you feeling guilty for being unable to go a day without crying. However, crying daily after a tragic loss like the loss of a parent is completely normal. Show yourself compassion during this time and let yourself grieve as much as you need to.

What Is Pre-Grieving?

Pre-grieving is an interesting and esoteric phenomenon. Anticipatory grief refers to the pain one feels in the weeks, days or months preceding the expected death of a loved one. If you experience anticipatory grief, you should reach out to loved ones or even staff at the hospice your parent is being cared for in. They will have many resources to help you cope both before and after the loss.