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Grieving the Death of a Parent

Updated: Jun 13, 2022

When I received a phone call from Michael while I was at the Chicago airport catching a flight back home, I knew something awful had happened. By the time he had finished saying “Hey it’s Michael,” his tone had already conveyed a deep sense of pain and loss.

Michael, a co-worker and friend whose Hindu name is Gopal, is almost always full of energy and zeal. And in the past three years of working with him, I have never heard him talk in the kind of tone he was now using during our phone conversation. My immediate reaction was, “Is everything alright?” Michael responded, “I just got a phone call. My mom passed away. I’m headed to Akron.”

I was aware Michael’s mother had been ill for the past two years and lived in a nursing home. A few months ago, she had a ‘close call’ causing Michael to rush to Akron. And then everything was ‘fine’ for a while. At one point hospice was involved.

So, going through the security line at O’Hare, I was in a state of shock. I put my luggage down and got off the line so I could talk. Even though in my professional life I am used to talking to my patients about losses, I was ‘at a loss’ for words. I offered my condolences and provided support to him in the best manner I could. I told him he did not need to worry about work and should take care of himself and his family. I told him he could call me anytime he felt like talking. By the time he hung up the phone, I realized Michael’s grieving had just begun.

Grieving for a deceased parent

A parent’s death is one of the most painful life events any of us has to go through. With the demise of a parent, we lose a very important part of our past regardless of the quality of our relationship with the parent.

What is grief?

Grief is a combination of emotional responses to a loss which could be other than the death of somebody you love. There are many losses that people grieve such as the loss of a pet, a job, financial security etc.

How do we grieve?

The grieving process is highly individual. Our personality traits, coping styles, religious faith, life experiences and nature of loss all determine how we behave while grieving. In the face of the death of a loved one, most of us experience a combination of emotions such as denial, anger, bargaining, depression, and acceptance. Not everyone experiences all of these emotions. It is important to realize that there is no typical pattern of timeline for grieving.

What should you expect when a parent passes away?

·        A sense of shock is very common.

·        Young people, especially teenagers, tend to experience anger also.

·        Poor appetite, sleeplessness, low energy, and lack of focus and interests are expected.

·        Decreased overall daily functioning is common.

·        Guilt-feeling about past interactions may occur.

·        Fear about death of other parent or other family members are not uncommon.

·        Many people experience inevitable physical symptoms. One is more likely to get sick during a grieving process.

·        Tearfulness is almost universal.

·        Preoccupation with various worries may happen.

What should you do?

·        Don’t be alone: have your family/friends around you especially during the first few days after death.

·        Allow yourself to cry-especially with family and friends: it is therapeutic.

·        Do not avoid the topic of death: express your thoughts and feelings freely.

·        Remembering the deceased parent in the form of journal writing or writing a letter could be helpful.

·        Utilize your faith as much as possible.

·        Some people find support groups (on grief) very helpful.

·        It is very important to take good care of yourself: pay special attention to sleep, meals, and hygiene.

·        Be open to friends about your expectations regarding talking about death or loss and funeral arrangements etc. It is especially important since your friends may feel awkward and uncomfortable.

When to seek professional help?

You should be sure to see a mental health professional if one or more of the following occur in the wake of grieving:

·        Profound feeling of guilt.

·        Suicidal thoughts and preoccupation with death.

·        Feelings of hopelessness/worthlessness.

·        Experiencing visual (‘seeing things’) and auditory (‘hearing things’) hallucinations.

·        Prolonged and severe impairments in daily functioning.

·        Extreme anger.

·        Unusual denial about the death of a loved one.

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