I was 13 when my father died. Although I was only a child, I had to support my mother both physically and emotionally while I grieved the loss of my father and she grieved the loss of her husband. It was immensely hard for both of us. I remember my mother would be doing ordinary things such as setting the dinner table for dinner or folding laundry, and suddenly she would start crying. So, I took on additional responsibilities to help my mother in any way I could. I cleaned out my father’s closet and packed his clothing up for donation because my mother couldn’t do it. I also called realtors for my mother because we were in the process of moving from Long Island to New Jersey, and she would sometimes get choked up on these calls.
As a child, I had to be there to support my mother just by the sheer fact I was living in the same house with her. But helping our parents as they cope with the loss of their spouse is equally as important when we are adults and living independently. Even if one’s spouse lives a long, happy life, one still feels a loss. One may take comfort in the idea that his or her spouse’s life was long, but this idea does not ease the pain of losing that person. When one loses a spouse, he or she is losing a companion, a best friend, someone he or she loves. When people become intertwined for so long, they become dependent on each other. Because of this, one may experience loneliness as well as the traditional sadness associated with grief. The problem is that even as an adult mourning a parent who has passed away, we must also find a way to take care of the surviving parent who is now grieving. So what are the best ways to do this?
The first piece of advice I can share for helping a surviving parent mourn the death of their spouse is to be there for him or her physically. If you, the child, are middle-aged, your parent may require additional assistance more than you realize as a result of his or her age. Help pack up belongings, tidy the home or perhaps go grocery shopping. Also, make sure your parent is eating well, sleeping enough, and remaining active. But most importantly, spend time with your parent. He or she will take comfort in you just being there, especially if you are an adult and do not see your parent as often as you did when you lived with him or her as a child. On the afternoon my grandfather died, all my grandmother wanted me to do was sit with her while she drank a cup of tea. I felt useless at the time, but looking back, I know me just being there brought her comfort.
It is likewise as important to be there emotionally for your parent as it is to be there physically. Be patient with him or her. Losing a spouse is not the same as losing a parent because when one loses a spouse, one loses a lifelong companion. Be supportive and kind, and keep in mind, you and your parent are experiencing a range of emotions which can manifest in various ways. It is better to confront those feelings than suppress them. Plus, everyone mourns differently. Some people instantly feel grief while others take longer to process their feelings. It will take time for your parent to function normally and not as if their world has come to an end. If necessary, consider joining support groups or receiving professional help to cope with those feelings.
Talk about your parent who has passed away, and keep his or her memory alive. It may hurt at first, but you shouldn’t try to forget the memory of your parent or attempt to suppress it in an attempt to ease your pain. Grief subsides eventually. Every day you will wake up and feel a little less sad than the day before. With time, you will get to the point where you and your surviving parent can share memories without breaking down. When important dates such as birthdays or anniversaries roll around, acknowledge them. If your surviving parent is up for it, celebrate. But do not avoid speaking or thinking about your parent to avoid confronting your grief. Even if you are successful in the short-term, likely you will be coasting by on borrowed time.
Finally, take care of yourself. Yes, as a child who has just lost a parent, you will have many responsibilities to deal with to help your surviving parent cope with life without his or her spouse. But you have responsibilities to yourself as well. Similar to your parent, you must take care of your emotional and physical needs, not only so you can take care of others, but also so you can continue to live your life to its fullest. Face your grief. Seek professional help or join a support group independent of your surviving parent so you can get the attention you deserve. And remind yourself, as you would your grieving parent, that you, too, have the strength inside of you to survive.
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