Saying Goodbye

By Kristen Castillo

November 12, 2013 5 min read

They taught you to ride your bike, explained the value of saying "thank you" and supported your every decision, good or bad. Through the years, your parents laughed with you, cried with and loved you. So, how do you say goodbye?

"Be mindful that no matter how old the adult child is or how old the parent might have been at the time of death, it is a deep and fundamental loss," says psychotherapist Silvia M. Dutchevici, who is also president and founder of the Critical Therapy Center.

Dealing with the death of a parent is never easy, and it's often more complicated than it may seem on the surface.

"In essence, a death changes lives, and the living will be challenged in many ways as a result of the loss," says Cynthia McKay, a psychotherapist specializing in grief counseling. "There is no simplistic way of dealing with the loss, since the parent provided many things: emotional support, advice, memories, stories of historical value relating to the family's origin, sometimes financial support. We often forget the impact of losing those very important qualities in our lives."

*Challenges

Grieving the loss of a parent is different for everyone. Some mourn the loss and move on, while others can't get past the death so quickly. Experts say there's no "appropriate" length of time to grieve and no singular way to know how to handle it.

"When it happens, we are walking on completely new ground," says psychologist Dr. Paul Hokemeyer. "We've never lost a mother or father before. And we never will again, so we have one opportunity to make it meaningful and rich.

"To do that, we should get clear about what we want our parents to know about us and how we feel about them. We also want to get clear about what we want to know from them -- what they value most in their lives, what they are most proud of and what they would have done differently."

*Processing the Grief

Whether you had a close or estranged relationship with a parent, you'll still mourn the loss.

"Grief is a process, not an event," says Anna L. Peterson, a clinical social worker experienced in grief counseling. "Just like our fingerprints, people grieve in unique ways. There are five general phases to the process: shock/denial, sadness, anger, bargaining and acceptance.

"People grieving the death of a parent can move in and out of some of these stages repeatedly. It is important that we give each other permission to grieve and move in and out of the stages of grief."

Dr. Hokemeyer suggests journaling your feelings, talking to family members, joining a support group such as GriefShare and reading books like Elisabeth Kubler's "On Death and Dying."

"The best way to adjust to the loss of a parent is to give time and allow yourself to feel and process the wild roller coaster ride of your emotions," he says. "The best way to process these emotions is in a relationship with other people. Sadness, anger and depression can cause us to isolate."

You may benefit from individual counseling, too.

"Seeking grief counseling for a period of time is always helpful, not only to process the death of the parent, but to also understand the relationship further and to give oneself a space and time to mourn," says Dutchevici.

*Sharing the News

Telling close family should be done in person. "A private, comfortable atmosphere is usually best," says Peterson.

Be honest and then allow the family members to express their feelings.

While kids under three don't understand "the finality of death," says Dr. Hokemeyer, kids older than 5 "understand death is an irreversible concept."

He suggests talking to kids in terms they understand and preparing for lots of questions. "For children who are older, it's best to tell them directly, keeping in mind that it's OK to share your grief, sadness and even anger with them," says Dr. Hokemeyer.

*Tips for Dealing With a Parent's Death

--Allow yourself to express emotions. "Don't be brave," says McKay. "Cry. Scream. Mourn. Expose your pain so that you can deal with it."

--Honor the deceased parent by doing "something that commemorates your parent's life and reminds you of the good times you've spent together," says Dutchevici.

--While it's OK to feel down, set daily goals for yourself like getting out of bed and getting dressed.

--Expect the first holidays or family gatherings after the death to be tough. Dutchevici suggests acknowledging the loss and establishing new traditions.

--Be aware that a parent's death can shift "relationship dynamics within families," says Dutchevici, who explains this can be a time to heal from unresolved conflict, which, if left alone, could become more stressful.

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