The shock of losing a parent may come as a surprise for many adult children, especially if a parent had a long battle with illness or disease. Middle-aged children especially may think that they’ll be prepared for when the time comes to say goodbye to their ailing parent or one that is of advanced age. They might feel emotionally and psychologically prepared for the event but are shocked to find out how much their death affects them.
Jump ahead to these sections:
- What to Do for a Loved One Who Lost a Parent Immediately After the Death
- What to Do for a Loved One Who Lost a Parent Months After a Death
- What to Do for a Loved One Who Lost a Parent a Year or More After a Death
One of the most important things you can do to support a friend who’s lost a parent is understanding their grief and giving them the time and space they need to process their loss without abandoning your support or friendship in one of their most significant times of need.
Their emotional responses to loss may seem out of character or different from yours, but it is worth remembering that everyone’s grief journey is unique.
What to Do for a Loved One Who Lost a Parent Immediately After the Death
When you don’t know what to do for someone who lost a parent, you can start with the fundamentals of being a good friend and source of support during times of need. Everyone who’s experienced a significant loss will go through the ups and downs associated with grief.
Some may go through the initial stages of grief right away, while others may have delayed grief reactions. In any situation, know that your loved one will need some level of support to help them get through some difficult times in the upcoming days.
1. Reach out in support
Some people are uncomfortable with the idea of picking up the phone and having that dreaded conversation where they have to express condolences. It’s sometimes difficult to find the right things to say to someone who’s experienced the death of someone they love, and it may be easier to avoid the long, silent, and uncomfortable moments on the phone by reaching out in other ways.
Consider stopping by to pay your respects in person, sending a heartfelt message via text, or posting a thoughtful message on their social media timeline if they’ve already made an announcement.
2. Act as their liaison
When a parent dies, most adult children tend to make the final arrangements for their deceased parent despite having another surviving parent. The loss of a spouse or partner is a devastating blow to any widowed person, and having their children step in to take over all the final arrangements may be expected. But what happens when the child can't physically or emotionally handle the responsibility of attending to final arrangements?
Ask if you can step in and lend your support by acting as their go-between with friends and family who need information. You can coordinate social media posts, make and respond to telephone calls, and give out the official notices of time and place.
3. Send a thoughtful condolence gift
No one knows how they'll react when their parent dies. Society generally expects them to handle their grief with more ease than a younger person would because adults in their middle age are often more aware of their parents' mortality than younger adults.
Despite being aware of a parent's mortality, facing their death is a completely different thing and may significantly impact a child's grief reaction. You can help support your loved one by sending a sympathy gift for someone who has lost their parent and help to share in their loss.
4. Keep showing up
Some adult children who've lost a parent may feel isolated and alone, especially if they're an only child or if their siblings live far away. For some, the isolating feeling of not having anyone to talk to or share in the grief and sadness that follows a parent's death can be challenging.
You can support your loved one through the initial stages of grief by carving out some time each day to show up and offer a shoulder to cry on or to listen to them talk about what their parent's death means to them. Continue to show up even when your loved one assures you that they're okay.
What to Do for a Loved One Who Lost a Parent Months After a Death
After several months passing by after the death of a parent, you can expect that your loved one is just barely beginning to adjust to their loss.
Getting used to the idea of no longer having their parent around may take months after their death for several reasons. One of those reasons for the grief process being delayed is that the whirlwind of activity taking place following the death of a loved one may take away from being able to process their loss for several weeks or months after they’ve died.
Your loved one may be stuck in the beginning stages of grief for several weeks before realizing the full effect of their loss. You can help a loved one who's feeling stuck in their grief by sharing in their loss, listening to them, and offering guidance where appropriate. There are also other ways you can help, such as the following:
5. Developing new rituals
When your loved one can recognize the depths of their loss, they may not know how to process their grief. Some of the sudden and unexpected changes resulting from their loss will begin to surface, which may lead them to feelings of profound sadness and despair. You can step in and help them sort through their feelings and guide them into their new life.
Consider helping them develop new rituals to replace those shared with their parent before their death. For example, if your loved one was used to having coffee each morning with their parent, consider taking them out for a cup of coffee at least once a week to allow them to develop new routines.
6. Helping them recognize their grief
Grief is sometimes challenging to recognize in someone who seems to have their feelings and emotions under control. Although people react to grief differently, there are some common grief reactions to keep an eye out for. Some shared grief reactions in those who’ve suffered the death of a parent may be:
- Increased fear of death
- Fear of being alone
7. Being a good listener
By talking with and listening to your loved one, you may be able to uncover some of their suppressed feelings towards their parent’s death. Together you can find ways to get through those grief-related fears and anxieties so that they can get back on track with returning to life before their loss.
Being a good listener involves you devoting your undivided time and attention when with your loved one, paying attention to the non-verbal cues they’re giving you, and following up with thoughtful questions or considerations.
8. Actively participating in their grief process
During the first few months following the death of a parent, your loved one may need some more care, love, and support to get them through some of the more challenging days ahead. Consider walking alongside them for part of their grief journey to don’t feel as if they’re doing it alone.
You can join them in participating in grief therapy workshops, outings, or in any other way that they find meaningful and encouraging. Try to accompany them in as much of their journey as you both can agree.
What to Do for a Loved One Who Lost a Parent a Year or More After a Death
The effects of grief are sometimes delayed for various reasons. Sometimes adult children may be too involved with their own lives or settling their parent’s estate that they don’t have the time to grieve properly. As time goes on, they may find themselves recognizing the significance of their loss more and more.
It’s not unusual to have several months or a year go by before feeling the full effects of their grief. Recognizing the signs and symptoms of suffering in your loved one is crucial for lending support to them after a significant amount of time has passed since their parent’s death.
9. Recognize their sorrow
Many people are adept at hiding their grief behind fake smiles to avoid talking about their loss. They may fear touching on the negative feelings associated with their parent’s death. Not everyone knows how to outwardly express their grief and may become very good at shielding their emotions from others.
This type of avoidance behavior may contribute to your loved one’s prolonged grief and lead to other more severe grief effects such as chronic sadness or depression. Learn to tell if your loved one is hiding their pain from others by listening intently to any hidden cues in their conversations. Don’t be afraid to ask them directly how they’re coping and how you can help.
10. Help them find a support group
People of any age who’ve suffered the loss of a parent may be suffering feelings of abandonment, anger, and resentment. They may not yet understand the reasons leading up to their parent’s death or may blame themselves for not having done enough to help their parent.
This way of thinking is one form of survivor’s guilt and is common in children who acted as their parent’s caregiver. Thoughts of things they didn’t do or could’ve done better in caring for their parent can lead to depression and suicidal ideation if not adequately addressed. Finding an online grief support group to join may help them process their grief by talking about their loss with others with shared experiences.
11. Introduce them to grief therapy
Professional grief counseling or therapy is another way to support a loved one who is still grappling with severe symptoms of grief such as anger or depression. The way a person reacts to suffering is a unique experience that may be challenging to understand.
Even children who’ve suffered through the death of the same parent will respond differently since everyone’s relationship to their parent is different. A grief therapist will help bereaved individuals process their grief in healthy ways to find closure and healing as they work through their loss.
Supporting Someone Whose Parent Has Died
As with any grief, there's no timetable for when grief ends. Time alone doesn't provide complete healing from the profound pain and suffering of losing a parent. It's not uncommon for your loved one to feel the effects of grief for many years to come.
You can be a source of constant support by checking up on them from time to time to see how they're holding up. In addition, reminding them of how special their parent was to you and sharing in their memories of their parent to help them keep their legacy going.