Death and dying are all part of the human experience, and something we’ll all face one day. The natural order of things is that we’re born, live, and die, preferably of old age. We come to expect that we’ll outlive our parents and our children will outlive us. Knowing that this is nature’s intention, we are seemingly prepared for death when it happens - or so we think we are.
Jump ahead to these sections:
- How Long Does It Take to Get Through the Death of a Parent?
- What Are the Stages of Grief After the Death of a Parent?
- 11 Tips for Dealing With Grief After Your Parent Dies
When one of your parents dies, or you face losing parents close together, the grief can be so overwhelming that it may send you into a state of shock and profound despair. You may want to know precisely how long grief lasts after a parent’s death, but unfortunately, you won’t know until you go through the grief process and experience it firsthand.
How Long Does It Take to Get Through the Death of a Parent?
How long grief lasts after the death of a parent depends on several things. Some of those things are how well you and your parents got along, the closeness of your relationship, your mental state, and your ability to process and cope with grief.
For some people, grief can be expected to last anywhere from six to twelve months. For others, they may be affected by different types of grief that will extend their mourning for years after they’ve suffered the loss of a parent. This extended period of suffering is not uncommon when losing a parent as a teenager.
What Are the Stages of Grief After the Death of a Parent?
The grief process is usually thought to include five stages of grief outlined by the late Swiss-American psychologist, Elisabeth Kubler-Ross, in her book On Death and Dying, published in 1969. She developed the “Kubler-Ross Model” of the theory on how people process grief.
The Kubler-Ross model stages of grief include:
Experts once thought that grief followed this particular model of progression until later studies conducted by other practitioners in the field of death, dying, and bereavement found that not everyone experiences grief in such tidy, linear stages. The modern take on the bereavement cycle is that the transformational change in how a person experiences grief is more closely related to active engagement in the “four tasks of grieving,” as introduced by J.W. Worden, a psychologist and doctor.
The four tasks of mourning that he found to affect those who are bereaved are:
- Accepting the reality of your loss
- Processing the pain associated with grief
- Adjusting to a world without the deceased
- Finding an enduring connection with the deceased while moving forward
11 Tips for Dealing With Grief After Your Parent Dies
While there is no right or wrong way to grieve, the following tips will help you deal with the pain and suffering that follows the loss of one or both of your parents.
1. Give yourself time to grieve your loss
After suffering such a significant loss in your life, you will find that you may be unable to fully process your grief because of all the added responsibilities you have shortly after their death. Everything from caregiving to helping then with end-of-life issues, funeral planning, and dealing with their financial affairs may leave you with very little time to think about how their death is affecting you.
Expect that you will barely have enough time to yourself to figure out how their death has affected you in the first few weeks following their death. Once things begin to settle after the funeral or memorial service, take some time away from it all to process their death and to sort out your feelings and emotions. Give yourself ample time to grieve their loss before resuming your “normal” life back up.
2. Take stock of all the good memories
The shock of your parent’s death may very well leave you feeling deep sorrow and despair now that they’re gone. You may start to miss their presence shortly after their death, especially around the holidays, birthdays, and other special occasions. Try and focus on all of the good memories you and your parent shared. This can help you in dealing with the pain of having lost them.
Memories are an excellent way to remember your parent, especially on the days when you’re missing them the most. Try recreating some of your favorite things to do together if not having them around becomes unbearable.
For example, if you and your dad loved to go fishing, take a solo fishing trip to your favorite spot, and invite dad along on the trip. When you’re alone in your car or at the fishing spot, talk to your dad as if he were there and tell him how you’re feeling and ask for his advice. If you listen closely, you’ll find reassurance in nature around you.
3. Cry it out
Pent up emotions tend to cause further grief and emotional pain and suffering. Find a safe place where you can go to be alone with your grief and allow yourself to have a good cry. Don’t worry about looking or sounding foolish when there’s no one around you to judge your actions.
Remind yourself that you don’t need to explain to anyone why you need some time alone to grieve. This should be your sacred time to be alone with your grief so that you can fully express it and allow the motions to take place.
4. Visit the grave
You may find comfort and solace from your grief when you get in the habit of visiting your parent’s gravesite regularly, at least for the first few months following their death. Consider adorning their grave with fresh flowers and other decorations befitting the occasion.
Around the holidays, some cultures practice going out and having a drink or hot cocoa with their deceased parent, decorating the area around the headstone, or simply going out there to spend time with them as they used to when they were alive.
5. Hold a memorial service
Memorial services are not just for honoring your parent’s life. They are also a great way to gather your support system all in one place.
Allow friends and loved ones to share their memories of your parents and say a few words on how your parent’s life had an impact on theirs. You may find that your parent had an entire side to them that you were unaware of. The more you hear from others how your parent influenced them, the more meaning you can draw from the life they once lived.
6. Install a memorial garden
Memorial gardens are a place to gather in remembrance of your parent. This area can be a small corner out in your yard with a memorial stone in place, or a more elaborately planned area with benches, statutes, and trees planted in their honor.
This is a place for you to go to when you need to feel a deeper connection to your parent, for you to grieve, or for you to sit in prayerful contemplation of their memory.
7. Adopt a pet in their honor
Pets have a way of bringing unconditional love and joy into your life. If you’re feeling up to caring for an animal, consider adopting one from a shelter and giving them a new life in honor of your parent.
Be mindful of the care and attention that a pet requires and make sure you’re up to the task. It may be that you aren’t quite ready to adopt a pet, and perhaps you’re better off for now volunteering at a shelter until the time is right to bring one home.
8. Write a letter
Expressing your love, feelings, and emotions concerning your parent is sometimes better off said in the form of a letter to them. Writing a letter to your parent allows you to tell them all the things you wished you could’ve said when they were still alive.
Sometimes your parent’s health declines faster than you expected, or they die suddenly and unexpectedly, leaving you with unfinished business. Finding closure can be had by putting your thoughts down in writing.
9. Learn to enjoy nature
Sometimes grief can be so overwhelming and debilitating that you start to feel anxious and depressed. A good way to calm these thoughts and feelings is by going outside and taking in a breath of fresh air.
If you’re physically able to go out for a walk, do so for a few minutes. Frequent and short walks will help you clear your head, allow some private time to cry or talk to your parent.
10. Gather strength from your support group
Reach out to your family and friends to help you when things get rough. Invite someone out to lunch or dinner so that you have someone to talk to about your grief.
Let them know ahead of time so that they’re prepared and not taken by surprise. Sometimes being in the company of others will help you to overcome the most challenging days.
11. Get professional help
You can expect grief to affect you in unexpected ways. Getting professional help should be a consideration for the times when you’re unable to navigate through your grief on your own.
There are many different online grief counseling and therapy resources available to you at the click of the mouse.
Grieving After a Parent’s Death
The pain and sorrow you experience after a parent’s death may be one of the most challenging things in life that you'll go through. Allow yourself the necessary time and space to process your feelings to help you heal from your loss.
If you're looking for more ways to help you navigate your grief, read our guides on dealing with the death of an estranged parent and preparing for the death of a parent.
- Worden, J.W. “Grief counseling and grief therapy: A handbook for the mental health practitioner (4th ed.).” New York, Springer, 2008.
- Kübler-Ross, Elizabeth. “On death and dying.” New York: Macmillan, 1969.