Grief Series: Coping with the Death of a Parent

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"I wasn't there that morning
When my father passed away
I didn't get to tell him
All the things
I had to say.
I think I caught his spirit
Later that same year
I'm sure I heard his echo
In my baby's new born tears
I just wish I could have told him
In the living years"

Lyrics to "The Living Years" by Mike and the Mechanics

We have been discussing grief and loss here on My Depression Connection.   We began our series on grief with an interview with Kay Jamison, the author of "An Unquiet Mind" and "Nothing was the Same."   I personally learned a lot from talking to Kay Jamison about the experience of grief.   In her latest book, "Nothing was the Same" Jamison tells us what it was like to lose her husband and how that experience of grieving was very different from depression.   The one similarity Jamison noted was that both grief and depression are treatable.     Next we talked about the loss of love and grief.   Anyone who has suffered from a break up or divorce can relate to the unimaginable feelings of despair and loss from ending a romantic relationship.   We shared our personal experiences with this type of loss and how we each got through it.

This time we turn our focus upon the grief experienced when we lose a parent.

Losing a parent is always traumatic but I think it is especially so when you are still a child.   I have some personal experience with this as my father died when I was four years old.   At that age you have no idea what death is, you have barely begun to acknowledge your own existence.   But I can tell you that my father's death had a profound impact upon my life.   At the time that I write this I am 45 years old.   I can tell you that even at this age; my father's death still hurts.

Sometimes grief is not so straightforward.   In my case, I never got to know my father.   One day he was there having a tea party with me.   My stuffed animals were sitting in chairs around my play table.   My father was laughing and pouring pretend tea.   And then my memory fades to my mother weeping uncontrollably.   My father is gone.   My mother tells me that my father was asleep and would never wake up.   That was her way of protecting me.   But in the end all it did was cause me to fear falling asleep.   Then she changes the story to my father was with God.   But to a four year old this makes little sense as well.   I learned to fear both sleep and God.   I could make no sense of it and still cannot in some respects.

The problem for me was any lack of closure.   I did not attend a funeral.   I did not get to see my father before or after he died.   I was left with a huge void and a mother who was falling apart.   For years I witnessed my mother's unresolved grief for my father.   Although my father was gone in a physical sense, my mother kept him alive through her unrelenting mourning.   In many ways my mother paid more attention to the ghost of my father than she did to me.   I grew to hate this man I barely remembered.   Yet I remembered the love too and this is what made things so terribly complex.   I never got to say goodbye and my mother refused to let go.

The hole my father's death has left in my heart is one that will never be filled.   And I dare say that most people will not understand this unless you have lost a parent early on in your life as well.   It is a difficult concept for many people to grasp, that losing a loved one you never really knew, can have a profound impact upon your entire life.   Perhaps it is a different kind of grief but it is still grief nonetheless.

Then there is the grief of losing a parent when you are an adult.   This type of grief, too, can have many complexities.   Two things which can complicate grief are that the death is sudden and unexpected and/or you have unresolved issues with your parent.

I remember when my best friend's father died.   She said he had a sudden heart attack at home when nobody was there.   He was found sitting in his favorite easy chair and looking peaceful.   My friend was so distraught that she never got to say goodbye.   This point stuck with her throughout her grieving process.   She thought it was so unfair that she didn't get to say the things she wanted to say to him while he was alive.   But this is life.   Death is often unexpected and we are left reeling to try to make sense of it.

Although my friend had a very difficult time with the fact that she did not get to say those last "I love yous" to her father, her grief was not complicated with unresolved issues between her father and herself.   This was not the case for another friend of mine.   In this situation my friend's father had been both abusive and neglectful and when he died it left my friend with an emotional mess to sort through.   She was angry when he died that she never got to express her rage to him.   She felt cheated in that way.

If you are watching the latest episodes of "Celebrity Rehab" with Doctor Drew, you can see such a struggle within celebrity Mackenzie Phillips, as she attempts to deal with her father's death, a man who she says had abused her for many years.   It is heart wrenching to see the aftermath of parental abuse long after the abuser has died.   Just because someone dies, it does not mean that the pain and suffering inflicted before their death, goes away.   It is an eternal legacy which the survivor must now deal with in addition to grief for what could have been (as in a normal and stable childhood).

Then there are situations where we are preparing for the death of a parent long before it actually happens.   We know our parent is aging or has a medical condition or disease which will take them eventually.   We become aware that our parent will not live forever and it reminds us of our own mortality.   Maybe you are caring for an elderly parent in your home and as much as you love your mom or dad, it is becoming increasingly difficult for you to manage their care.   There are so many difficult choices to be made and squabbles with siblings and relatives are common.   The reality is that the death of a parent, whether it comes suddenly or with years of awareness, is difficult.   There is nothing easy about it.   And it is my personal belief that there is no textbook explanation which offers much solace.

Everyone's process of grief will be different.   Much of it does depend upon the relationship you had with your parent before they died, the manner in which your parent dies, and how you personally handle grief.   I don't believe in putting a time table on grief.   Everyone has their own timeframe of mourning.   The one thing I do know for sure is that grief is work.   It isn't some passive process.   And you do need support to get through it.  
If you are currently experiencing grief over the loss of a parent, please do seek help and support whether it is from friends and relatives, your place of worship, support groups, and/or a therapist skilled in the grief process.

In upcoming posts I will be discussing other types of grief as well as ways one can cope with loss.   As I have mentioned, grief can be a very complicated and individualized process.   There are no simplistic lists of how to do grief.   I wish to provide a more realistic view of what grief can be like and what things may help so that you don't get stuck.

Have you lost a parent?   Are you worried about losing a parent?   Please share your thoughts, fears, and experiences here.   Tell us how you manage and cope with grief.   By sharing your story, you will undoubtedly help someone else who is travelling along the same path.   Thank you to all who participate here on My Depression Connection.