You probably know, by now, your growth opportunities come in the form of the uncomfortable. You learn self-advocacy through the need to stick up for yourself, for instance. Once truly understood, your suffering is forever reduced to pain and, over time, your pain pairs with gratitude. You learn to appreciate your trials real-time rather than in retrospect. That’s how you know healing has occurred on some level.
Perhaps you know how to help friends dealing with grief because there have been so many opportunities to do so. Dealing with the grief of a parent, especially while you’re grieving too, is a whole different kind of experience.
Not only are you in the throes of shock, pain and all of the “what ifs” but your support system is too. You need each other now, more than ever. However, without preparation the entire experience could be an unfortunate series of missed connections and misunderstandings. And what the hell do you do when old grievances come up and all you want to do is run?!
There is no singular “right” way to help anyone through grief. You may even feel like you get it “wrong” more often than not. This universal feeling of helplessness can make you feel like running instead of sticking it out. Not you though.
You’re committed to being there when your parent(s) need it most. Fortunately, there are some concepts that will help you prepare for possible mishaps as well as some excellent tools for pulling you through them. Here are the Top 6 to get you started:
1. Set the expectations ahead of time
It’s easy to assume everyone is on the same page when you’ve shared a painful loss. After all, pain is pain…everyone understands pain, right?! Yes…and, not everyone understands each other’s pain or how individuals deal with pain.
Before you can understand others you want to take a close look at yourself:
- How do you deal with shock/denial? Do you need a hard dose of reality or time away from the fray?
- Traditionally, how do you deal with anger (which is a bandaid for deeper, unaddressed emotions)? Do you dive in and look for the root cause, if so is that a private matter or do you need a processing partner? Do you lash out, full of defensiveness only to apologize later? Once you know your triggers what can you do to dampen their effects?
- What about bargaining?? Perhaps you play out a million “shoulda, woulda, coulda” scenarios. Or maybe you guilt is your poison, consequently requiring some self-healing in addition to normal grief-healing.
Write out your answers. Process through it with a coach or a friend. Deeper understanding of yourself gives you the framework you need when dealing with grief of a parent:
- What is reasonable for you to offer
- to yourself
- to your parent
- What is helpful for you to receive
- from an objective party (friend or coach)
- from other grieving family members (including your heartbroken parent)
Have a conversation about what you need and what you can offer as early on as possible. If a loss is forthcoming, as in the terminal illness of a family member, it’s a great idea to have the “what to expect” conversation beforehand. The conversation doesn’t protect against all possible problems but it goes a long way toward setting reasonable expectations and the framework you need for future discussions.
2. Learn what you can about the grieving process
The misunderstandings that affect families for years to come most often arise in the Anger Stage of Grief. As mentioned in Strategy 1, anger is not just being mad. It is the toddler fit some other repressed emotion is throwing in an attempt to get your attention. Frustration, confusion, betrayal, abandonment are all examples of feelings that, when ignored over the years, will boil over at the worst possible moment.
Your parent may have unkind words, toss around meaningless yet hurtful blame or even unconsciously project their own misery onto you. It’s important to remember these are not, at their core, their truest feelings. Kernels of truth, perhaps, but mostly they’re conversations that got tabled and fears that went unaddressed in the past. They’re projections of the wounds s/he has been too ill-equipped (or scared) to deal with.
When you understand the grieving process your perception of others’ hurtful behavior (or reclusive, shocked or depressed behavior) changes. You don’t need them to behave a certain way in order for you to support them (or receive support from them).
Your opportunity to learn, and practice, grace is when others are being anything but gracious. Afraid you’ll fuck it up with your own painful defense and unconscious self-loathing? That only means you get to practice grace with YOURSELF first!!
Your mistakes are only the end result when you give up.
3. Expect mishaps in communication
There will be times when you’re dealing with grief of a parent that you’re ready to offer support but they’re not ready to receive it. Likewise, the reverse will be true.
It’s natural to imagine the overflow of gratitude because of your tenacious support. But the moment you insist that’s the only possible “successful” outcome is the moment you’ll be disappointed. When you’re let down repeatedly you’re at risk of developing deep-seeded resentment that can scar your relationship.
There is no guaranteed outcome out of any life experience. Be present to everything and expect nothing. Expect conversations to take a bad turn, intentions to be misconstrued and old grievances to arrive. Once you recognize all of these as a natural part of the process you’ll ease up altogether. You’ll stop trying to be perfect. Better communication will be the result!
4. Keep trying
Don’t give up. Not on them nor on yourself. Give space and time when it is required, sure. Grief changes over time though. Their last reaction may not be their next reaction. Keep these ideas in mind when you feel stuck and don’t know how to engage:
- Stay present to the moment and say what’s on your heart. No personal agendas!! Your “shoulds” aren’t their “have tos.”
- Be authentic. Whatever you’re feeling be gently honest.
- Don’t “try” to make them feel any certain way. Just be there.
- Reminisce. There’s space in your hearts for some happy memories along with the pain, I promise.
- No one wants to talk? Sit on a park bench with some ice cream for some wordless, yet therapeutic, parallel play. (Important for social healing/growth in adults, too!)
- Take a drive to the mountains or the ocean. No agenda necessary. Allow nature to do her healing work.
- Simple “I love you” texts work wonders, too!!
For healing to be possible we must be tenacious in self-love and, by extension, the love of others.
5. Let them support you, too.
While you’re dealing with grief of a parent you’ll find your own grief begins to transform as well. Look through lists of choose happiness quotes and you’ll find a common theme: Help others heal as a catalyst to your own healing. Do not deprive your parent(s) of this gift.
Your parent(s) will likely feel aimless and confused for awhile, especially in the beginning. They need to feel useful, even as a temporary coping mechanism to get moving again. Let them help you. Receive with grace, even if you think it’s unnecessary.
You cannot “save” anyone from grief. You can, however, find a rhythm of reciprocal support for one another; move through it together, safely and with love.
6. Get outside support
May sound counterintuitive in an article about dealing with grief of a parent but you need an objective perspective. Not only will outside help aid your healing journey but any insights you gain from the process can be shared with your parent(s).
Helping yourself is helping others.
So make an appointment with your life coach, minister or trusted friend. Commit to processing your grief with someone who cares about you and remains objective.
When you act in your highest good, you act in THE highest good. Every. Time.
Dealing with grief of a parent can feel like confusing era of role reversal mixed with old and new wounds alike.
Old or new, whatever issues arise while you’re dealing with grief of a parent are meant to be investigated and sorted through. What needs to be healed must first be revealed.
Keep this list handy. You’ll get stuck and feel lost from time to time. Think of these strategies as tools in a toolkit and call on them often.
Your patience and willingness to be there for them has already set you all on a pathway to success.
Thank you for showing up for your parents in their time of need! Helping others dealing with grief is never easy. Your commitment to do so makes you a hero. Please let me know which of these strategies is most impactful. If you have questions on how to implement any of them, let me know that too!!
Triffany is a certified professional life coach who helps strong women tame their inner hot mess. She’s developed a course specifically designed to help women ensure their loss doesn’t get the best of them. Sign up for Conscious Transitions: A Home Study Course In Grief & Growth or download the free “What Did I Do To Deserve This?! Journal & Ebook” today.