Grieving the Loss of a Parent
Updated: Sep 28, 2022
Nothing can ever fully prepare us for the loss of a parent. Although we know that death is inevitable, the finality of their loss is still hard to handle.
Whether we were incredibly close with our parents or estranged from them, difficult emotions surface when a parent dies that need to be honored, explored, and expressed.
If our relationship with our parents was strained or even non-existent at the time of their death, feelings related to unforgiveness or regret could quickly surface. Similarly speaking, an adult child who had a contentious relationship with their parents may feel unbothered at the time of their parent's death, causing them to struggle with shame or guilt for their emotional response. Grief can be complicated and is not always easy to recognize. Yet, we still experience some level of grief, even if it was due to us accepting that we never had the relationship we've always desired with our parents.
In contrast, if we had a close-knit relationship with our parents, their death could carry the weight of multiple losses. For some of us, our parent was our best friend, trusted confidant, and biggest fan. They might have been the person we could always rely on for advice, help, or a shoulder to cry on. Therefore, this loss leaves us with an incredible void we can't imagine filling.
The journey forward after the loss of a parent is not straightforward. In addition to navigating the legalities of funeral arrangements, the estate, and family members who are "hard to tolerate," we also need to tend to the demands of work, children, church, or other responsibilities.
This is usually where our Grief journey becomes stifled. Grief is a normal, healthy, and necessary response to loss. Yet, sometimes we place our Grief in a tiny little box on the shelf because we feel we don't have time to deal with our painful, complex emotions. When we deny ourselves the room to grieve, we experience carried grief. Grief counselor and author Dr. Alan Wolfelt defines carried grief as "accumulated grief from life losses that have never been adequately acknowledged or mourned."1
Mourning is our external expression of our grief. When we cry, share our emotions, experience the loss, or organize a ritual around that loss, we're mourning.2 Yet, some of us never had the opportunity to mourn, nor knew we needed to. The belief that we have to be strong for our families or control our emotional response has impeded our ability even to acknowledge the pain that exists. Although suppressing our feelings might work for a little while, it is never a long-term solution.
Those who have carried their grief can find themselves experiencing difficulties with depression and anxiety, irritability and agitation, addictions, and other physical ailments (real or imagined). 3 At some point, we must make room for our grief through the act of mourning so we can move forward.
Dr. Wolfelt outlines several keys to mourning, which I used as a reference for the steps I outline below.
Step 1: Acknowledging the reality of the loss: Grief is painful, which is why many choose to avoid speaking or even thinking about what they experienced. In order to mourn, we must acknowledge the loss and be honest about how that pain affected us. Sharing what we experienced with a counselor or a trusted friend will help us begin to release some of the feelings we've suppressed inside. Generally, this is not a one-and-done conversation. As long as we experience these emotions around our grief, we must continue to share. 4 Although we might have friends and family members that we can talk to, we often hesitate to do so out of fear of being a burden to those we love. This is where working with a Christian grief counselor can help. A trained grief counselor can help us uncover the complex emotions we are feeling without judgment while identifying our needs. They will provide us with a dedicated space to be honest, real, and free to mourn this major loss in our life.
Step 2: Embrace the Pain of the Loss: After acknowledging the pain, it's time to allow ourselves to feel our emotions. Some people have learned how to disassociate themselves from their experience, where they can talk about it without feeling emotions as if they are telling someone else's story. This defense mechanism can help us cope with the initial shock of a traumatic or painful event but can be a barrier to our healing. Journaling or going through items like photos or memorabilia can help us with this process. Music is also therapeutic and can help us access our feelings. 5 While doing these exercises; there might be points where we feel overwhelmed. If this happens, we must care for ourselves by taking a break or stepping away. When seeking to grieve in a way that brings healing, it is essential to find that healthy balance between allowing ourselves to encounter the pain and retreating from it. This prevents us from being paralyzed in our pain. A professional grief counselor can gently guide you through the process of - experiencing these emotions in a healthy way.
Step 3: Remembering the people who died and the things that you lost: "Grief responds to awareness. Part of your grief work right now is turning your awareness to your memories, both good and bad," according to Dr. Wolf. "Befriending your memories tends to tame them. Memories become less powerful and all-consuming when you talk about them, write about them, make art about them… and express them in other ways." Remembering is an act that allows us to integrate our past with our present and future. 6 One of the examples that the Bible gives us to express our pain is through the act of lament.
A lament is a biblical term used to describe the process of placing a complaint before God. It allows us to express our sorrow to God without inhibition. It's honest, raw and gives us space to speak truthfully about our doubts, fears, and pain. Lamenting is an act of faith that acknowledges that we don't have the ability or strength to solve our problems, and we turn to God to deliver, restore, and carry us through this season of darkness.
And when we talk to God, we can find comfort in knowing He is listening. King David, a well-known leader in the Bible, had gone through a season of great loss. During his time of sorrow, he chose to release the pain that he was harboring inside through his letter to God. We can witness one of his laments in Psalm 13: 1-6 NIV.
1 How long, Lord? Will you forget me forever?
How long will you hide your face from me?
2 How long must I wrestle with my thoughts
and day after day have sorrow in my heart?
How long will my enemy triumph over me?
3 Look on me and answer, Lord my God.
Give light to my eyes, or I will sleep in death,
4 and my enemy will say, "I have overcome him,"
and my foes will rejoice when I fall.
5 But I trust in your unfailing love;
my heart rejoices in your salvation.
6 I will sing the Lord's praise,
for he has been good to me.
Our big God can handle our big emotions. This serves as one of many examples in the Bible that expressing ourselves to God plays a crucial role in our healing process.
Step 4: Receive ongoing support from others: A sense of community is critical when grieving, but it is sometimes hard to find. Although you are typically inundated with flowers, phone calls, cards, and help the first few weeks after the loss, the calls and check-in visits slowly fade after the funeral. But our need for support doesn't suddenly end after the burial; our grief journey is just beginning. This is why we must seek out additional resources for ourselves. One way to do this is to join a grief support group. Support groups provide us with the space we need to mourn the loss of a loved one in a safe environment that will hold us up in our pain. Since we are surrounded by individuals who have experienced a similar loss, we leave that space feeling understood and heard. Grief groups can be an invaluable part of your healing process.
If you are looking for some free resources on Grief and loss, visit faithonthejourney.org/grief to learn about our free support group and other tools that can help you during this major loss.
About the Author
Rev Jocelyn J. Jones
Rev. Jocelyn J. Jones is an author, speaker, and entrepreneur. She received her bachelor’s degree from the University of Iowa in journalism. After earning her B.A., Jocelyn worked for channel 20, WYCC. She left the television industry to serve as the Executive Director of the ARK of St. Sabina, a youth center on Chicago’s Southside. While at the ARK, Jocelyn earned her master’s degree from the University of Chicago in social work. Tragically, the lives of several families she served were shattered due to gun violence. Those experiences and her own quest for emotional healing inspired her to establish her company, Faith on the Journey Counseling. Jocelyn earned her master’s degree in theological studies from McCormick Theological Seminary. She is an ordained minister, a training facilitator with the Trauma Healing Institute, and the author of the book Breaking the Power of the Mask.
References from Dr. Alan Wolfeilt come from two books When Grief is Complicated and Too Much Loss: Coping with Loss Overload.
1. When Grief is Complicated, pg. 104
2. When Grief is Complicated, pg. 15
3. Too Much Loss: Coping with Loss Overload, pg. 105
4. Too Much Loss: Coping with Loss Overload, pg. 30
5. Too Much Loss: Coping with Loss Overload, pg. 31
6. Too Much Loss: Coping with Loss Overload, pg. 31