Coping with the loss of a spouse is a devastating challenge; likewise, losing a parent is one of the hardest obstacles many people have to face throughout life. When you’re facing your own tremendous grief over the loss of a parent, how can you possibly provide your surviving parent with the support needed to overcome their grief over losing their beloved partner? It’s a situation faced by many adult children. While there are no easy solutions, there are some valuable tips and strategies you can employ to help ease your parent’s grief while managing your own.
Grief Differs Dramatically From Person to Person
Everyone experiences grief differently. It’s a different grieving process for someone who has lost a spouse versus someone who has lost a parent. Even two people who have lost a spouse may grieve in entirely different ways. Grief, while it may have a predictable series of stages for most people, is a very individualized experience.
Because grieving can be dramatically different from one person to the next, it’s important to let your grieving parent express her emotions and communicate her needs. One person may merely want to know that family and friends are there to listen and provide a shoulder to lean on, another may be so devastated that she is unable to bring herself to get out of bed for several days following the passing of a spouse.
Help Fill in the Gaps for Everyday Tasks
One of the biggest challenges that come with the death of a spouse is coming to grips with the new reality of everyday life. Not only is there an empty hole in your parent’s heart, but your parent may now be faced with handling everyday tasks once handled by her spouse.
For instance, spouses often divvy up tasks like cooking meals, paying bills, cleaning, and taking care of household maintenance. If the surviving spouse never handled the couple’s finances, suddenly being thrown into tasks once taken care of by a spouse can be overwhelming. Often, adult children are aware of which parent handled what duties generally around the house, so lending a helping hand in these new areas is often much-needed support.
If you’re not able to handle some of these tasks yourself, something as simple as making arrangements for the teenage boy down the street to mow your mother’s grass can ease substantial stress. A more immediate need is handling funeral arrangements, notifying financial and government entities, and taking care of other legalities, which may be too painful for your grieving parent to handle alone. Step in and offer to help or take care of these essentials, in cooperation with siblings and other family members as needed.
What to Do with All This Time?
For surviving spouses who were also serving as primary caregiver to an ailing spouse, the biggest need upon a spouse’s death may be something to keep him or her occupied. Devoting every waking hour to caring for a loved one can be even more emotionally draining when you’re suddenly no longer needed, contributing to incredible feelings of loneliness and loss.
The question of what to do with yourself now that you have hours and hours of free time is not an easy one for a grieving spouse to answer. Look into support groups or local activities that might interest your parent. Reach out to your parent’s friends and ask them to check in from time to time or invite your parent to take a walk, have dinner, or catch a movie. Often, getting out of the home shared with a spouse, where memories are painful reminders of the recent loss, is a welcome distraction. While there is no acceptable standard of how long it should take anyone to grieve the loss of a loved one, particularly a spouse, do watch for signs that your parent is really struggling to overcome her grief and make arrangements for her to talk with a doctor or counselor if you're concerned.
Don’t Forget to Take Time for Your Own Grieving Process
Maybe you’re the type of person who copes best with grief when you’re busy taking care of someone else. If that’s you, stepping in to help your grieving mom or dad take care of all the necessities and the new reality of day-to-day life is probably an excellent way to keep your mind off of your own grief. But do recognize that you have the right and the need to grieve your own loss, as well.
While the grieving process for losing a parent is different than that of losing a spouse, you may need to take a time-out to reflect on your loss. Giving yourself the opportunity to do so when needed will help you be more supportive to your grieving parent when you are present. So don’t be afraid to reach out for help. Many people want to help friends and family who have just suffered a tremendous loss, but they are fearful of interfering or intruding. When you let loved ones know what they can do to help, they are often happy to have the opportunity to feel – and be – useful.
It’s not easy helping a parent cope with the loss of a spouse, particularly when you are navigating your own grieving process. Watching and listening to learn how your grieving parent is coping with the loss provides valuable clues to how you can be most supportive and helpful. Listen, ask, and help in the ways that your parent most needs. You’ll find that being able to help your surviving parent cope with such a substantial, life-altering loss will help you work through your own grief, as well.