Most individuals don’t know what to expect when their spouse dies, and in many cases, the widowed spouse is left trying to understand their grief reactions. The lack of personal experience with this type of loss makes it challenging to recognize the signs and symptoms of grief.
Jump ahead to these sections:
- How to Help Your Own Grieving Parent Who Lost a Spouse
- How You Support Another Grieving Parent Who Lost Their Spouse
Bereaved parents will inevitably turn to the love and support of their adult children to help them deal with their responses to loss and the conflicting feelings they may experience. The intensity of loss that a parent who’s lost a spouse feels is unique to them. Their relationship with their spouse and the different factors affecting their marriage, both positive and negative, will determine the time and intensity of their grief.
How to Help Your Own Grieving Parent Who Lost a Spouse
Knowing how to help a grieving parent who lost a spouse can be challenging for you as the child. When you lose a parent or step-parent, you're also suffering. Sometimes it might feel as if you have to set aside your grief to help your parent process theirs.
But focusing on their grief instead of yours can create a delayed grief reaction that may complicate the grieving process for you later on. One of the best ways of helping someone else handle their grief is to first take care of yourself.
When you feel ready, the following tips might help you offer comfort and support to your bereaved parent.
1. Step into a different role
Sometimes it isn’t easy to see ourselves as grown-up adults in the eyes of our parents, especially when both parents are still living. When one parent, or the spouse of a parent, dies, our roles as their children shift into something else.
What was once a relationship dependent on a parent’s love and guidance has suddenly turned into one where you find yourself offering love and support to your parent. In contrast, in learning this new role, time, love, and compassion help heal the wounds left behind when a spouse dies.
2. Learn as much as you can
Books for surviving spouses can help you learn and understand the grieving process. There are many books on grief written by several authors, some of whom are grief professionals and others who are laypersons sharing their grief journeys.
There’s something to learn from everyone. The experts can guide you through what the grief process might look and feel like. The everyday person’s experiences can help you better understand what your parent’s going through and how to help them survive their grief on a deeper level.
3. Make yourself available
After the shock and initial grief wear off, your surviving parent will need guidance, love, and support getting through the next several months following the death of their spouse. Your parent may face unexpected challenges in returning to their life after loss. They may not be prepared to do certain things on their own that they once relied on their spouse for.
Make sure to ask where they might need you. Consider helping in the following ways:
- Organizing the household finances
- Cooking or preparing meals
- Assisting with the heavy lifting around the house
- Doing the laundry
- Deep cleaning the house
4. Help them make difficult choices
A parent who’s lost a spouse will eventually need to make some hard decisions regarding the spouse’s personal belongings and finances. They’ll likely face an onslaught of decision-making immediately after their spouse’s death when it comes to funeral arrangements and coroner’s reports.
Ask to see where you can help make some of these decisions for them or where they can use your input. Never assume that you have the right to take control of any aspect of the decision-making unless you’re an executor or representative of the estate.
5. Show up often
A parent who’s just lost a spouse may feel extremely sad and lonely following the death of the person they’re most likely the closest to. Many people tend to withdraw from their social and support groups after suffering from a significant loss. While giving someone space to grieve seems like a good idea, it’s even more isolating and painful for the bereaved parent to face their grief on their own.
If your parent lives nearby, consider visiting them more often. Take them out to lunch so that they can get some fresh air. Or if they’re not feeling up to it, suggest they set a future date and time where it might be better for them.
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6. Suggest a widowed person’s group
Support groups for widowed spouses can do wonders for someone dealing with the recent loss of their spouse. Regardless of the spouse’s age at death, this type of loss can leave an overwhelming and profound sorrow in the heart of the surviving spouse.
Sometimes a support group can help widowed spouses handle their grief better than they can on their own or with only the help and advice of someone who’s never experienced the death of a spouse. Start with a locally available support group that’s easy and convenient to get to. If one doesn’t exist nearby, consider tapping into online resources.
7. Help them find a solution to their grief
There’s nothing you can do or say to help anyone feel better after the death of a loved one. However, your words have meaning, and your actions are remembered far longer than the words you say. Although there’s no way to rush through your grief, you can help find solutions to helping you better deal with it.
A grieving parent who’s just lost their spouse may suffer in many more ways than what’s apparent on the outside. Finding a solution to their grief means exploring ways to heal from it and move through it even though they may not imagine it's possible.
How You Support Another Grieving Parent Who Lost Their Spouse
There’s no standard way of grieving after the loss of a spouse. When a person deals with the pain and sorrow that follows a spouse’s death and learns to comfort and support their children, their grief journey may become even more complicated and challenging.
The bereaved parent may become caught between their grief and their family’s grief. The following are some suggestions on how you might help them cope.
8. Talk about the deceased
We're not powerless in how we deal with our grief. We can help support others coping with the loss of a spouse by talking about the deceased person and encouraging the use of their name in your conversations.
When dealing with the death of a significant other, others may shy away from bringing them up in conversation or asking the widowed spouse how they're managing after their spouse's death. Don't back away from talking about them or asking the widower how they're doing.
9. Encourage them to keep moving forward
Time alone doesn't cure grief. Bereaved individuals simply get better at coping with grief. When a spouse dies, the widowed spouse's life is forever changed. In time, they'll learn to adapt to their loss, but they'll never go back to being the same.
There's no telling how long grief lasts after the death of a spouse. However, after about the first year following their spouse's death, encourage the widowed spouse to get back out there and resume living their life in whatever way makes the most sense to them.
10. Allow them to express their grief
Everyone’s grief journey is unique. The way one person grieves the loss of their spouse will differ from the next, although they may share similar grief responses. Supporting someone through the loss of their spouse means allowing them the expressions of pain and sorrow that make up a part of their experience with loss.
Try not to be judgmental over how they’re processing their grief or make suggestions on how they can better handle their loss.
11. Suggest an online support group
Online support groups provide a safe space for people with shared experiences to come together to talk about what they’re going through. There are many different support groups for people who lost a spouse.
A bereaved widowed spouse has an opportunity to search for a group that caters to their specific experience. For example, if they are a young widower with children under the age of ten, they can find a group specifically for widowed parents dealing with that particular type of grief.
12. Help them explore grief retreats
Grief retreats are an excellent option for individuals dealing with the loss of a spouse. Retreats are available both online and in person. You might suggest that the bereaved spouse take some time to get together with others to explore the depths of their loss, learn how to process their grief, and make good friends along the way.
Grief retreats provide opportunities for self-reflection, growth, and contemplation.
13. Offer to help with the children
A parent of young children may need the reprieve from having to take care of them, even if it’s just long enough to sit alone with their grief for a few hours. Parenting leaves little time for oneself, making it nearly impossible to process the feelings and emotions stemming from the death of a spouse.
A bereaved parent faces many challenges in finding the time to resolve their grief reactions when having to care for others’ needs before their own. Offering to take the children out to the park or for some ice cream can be a blessing to any grieving widowed spouse.
Grief After the Death of a Spouse
Losing a spouse is a gut-wrenching and very personal grief journey. It’s impossible to know how a person is handling the loss of their spouse and the many secondary losses that follow. Their grief reactions may seem at first confusing or may cause you to judge the way they’re grieving. What most individuals need when dealing with such a challenging situation is your unconditional love and support.