Understanding Emotions after the Death of a Parent

Death: Parent

The death of a parent as an adult can take you on different emotional paths, depending on the time it happens in your life, the age of your parent and the type of relationship you had with them.

No matter what, whether expected or unexpected, whether you have a close relationship or one fraught with conflict and disappointment, or whether you live nearby or never see them, there is something seminal about the death of a parent or someone who has cared for you in your childhood.

Love and attachment

The loss of a human being who has known you from birth or from your childhood can leave a hole within you. Hopes you had that they might meet your children, might approve of your upcoming promotion, might continue to financially support you or might be there when no one else seems to care can feel devastating. On the other hand, the loss of a parent you feel is holding you back can feel a release, or possibly you hoped for release but feel fear instead. Were they really holding you back? Now the excuse suddenly seems gone.

Things said and unsaid

Your mind might well take you along memories and present emotions of love and anger, the things said or the things left unsaid. Childhood love and fear may well come back unexpectedly.

Siblings, the other parent, step parents and partners

The death of a parent often brings siblings back into the same space. This can rejuvenate lost relationships from childhood and give a level of mutual support, or it can cause sibling rivalry and jealousy to rear its head again. Conflict over funeral choices or wills is common and grappling to fill the missing role in the family can all happen with or without intent and be a part of the friction.

The remaining parent may be very distraught or trying to compensate for the missing part of parenting with now grown up children around and everyone’s sense of identity is challenged. Step parents and partners also struggle with the changing family identities. The trauma and change will be different for everyone; touching base with your own feelings is extremely hard, never mind trying to touch base with everyone else’s.

All the above can be opportunities for growth and a greater sense of self-awareness and understanding of your own life, the path you have taken and the choices yet to be made.  Of course, it is very hard to see this in the midst of acute grief. It may well be that old patterns of relating kick back in.

If this is the case try and find some private time and space to think about what has triggered your own reaction to somebody else and why. It is common to feel very alone, yet without any privacy to grieve. You are catapulted into someone else’s space, for example back at your childhood home or in a hotel, and so is everyone else. You are alone in your emotional turmoil, yet with everyone upset and checking how you are, making funeral arrangements and helping grandchildren in their grief there isn’t a moment to catch up, to sit in your fathers favourite chair, hold his walking stick and just be with him through your childhood and his changing years. Try and find the time for yourself

Your own death

Anxiety about your own death is likely to be in your mind; how it might come about, when it might happen and whether you are ready for it. These thoughts arrive just when you least need them. Just looking into the face of your own death to come changes you. There is no going back. Let it happen.

At some point it will be good to take the time to sit with these thoughts, even if terrifying, and acknowledge the added level of mortality that you feel. Settle into this new identity of being a mortal being.

The mantle of safety that good parents give you in childhood may well feel a little fragile for a short while. The responsibility of being the older generation may kick in. All these thoughts and changes take time to adjust to. Take the time you need.

For help with death of a parent for a child, there is a separate article on children and grief.

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