Most adult children want to help and support their mom or dad when their partner/spouse dies. It’s a tough situation because you are also grieving the loss of one of the most significant relationships of your life. You can help yourself and your mom or dad by understanding grief and grieving, and the tremendous significance of this loss.
When a partner/spouse dies
The death of a spouse/partner is different from the death of a parent. They are fundamentally different relationships and are held differently in our hearts and minds.
The adult child understands and appreciates more fully what their surviving parent is experiencing if they themselves have lost a partner or spouse. It seems we humans often need to have the experience ourselves to really grasp what the experience is like. Grief and grieving are no exception.
Learn from those who have gone before you
If experience is the best teacher, what is the next best thing? To learn from those who have gone before you. Know that life is harder than you can probably imagine when someone you love dies. Act accordingly.
Adult children have been known to say, “I wish I had been there more for mom/dad.” Why do they say this? They say it because they experience the death of someone close to them and realize how it really knocks us off our proverbial feet. The meaning of the word ‘bereaved’ is “torn apart”. It can be hard to describe grieving. It embodies all parts of ourselves: the physical, mental, emotional and spiritual. The difficulty in describing this experience is why many resort to using grief metaphors to describe it.
By the way, if you are someone with guilt or regrets about how you handled your parent’s death (or anyone’s death), you don’t have to hold on to this pain. There is a brilliant project, dubbed the Grief Secret Project. If you have what they call a ‘grief secret’, something you haven’t shared because you feel embarrassed, guilty or ashamed, you can share it there and let go of those negative feelings!
Grief and grieving: natural and normal
Literally every site on grief and grieving refers to it as natural and normal. This is often followed by information on how to tell when a person may need professional help or have “complicated grieving” or even “complicated bereavement disorder.” I am not denying this is the case for some, but for the vast majority of us, grief and grieving does not require the help of a professional.
For sure, there are things we can do to “metabolize grief”, such as telling stories, whether to family or friends or in a grief support group. The point is to be mindful about the unhelpful tendency to medicalize or pathologize grief and grieving. I remember my mom saying that dad was the lucky one because he died first. Some might interpret this as a symptom of depression and that my mom needed professional. When I dug deeper, it seemed to me this comment was based on a realistic assessment of that moment. At the age of 81, mom was living alone for the first time in this big old 4 bedroom home, with 2 lots to maintain, considerably less money each month, and also had to figure out how to do or get things done that dad had taken care of before he died.
If grief and grieving are natural and normal…
What does this mean exactly? It means not getting caught up in stages of grieving, and deciding whether someone is in denial, or in some stage for too long or not long enough. It means not being rigid or imposing how one should grieve, how long one should grieve and deciding when it is supposedly time to “move on”. Your mom, for example, may want to remove your dad’s clothes out of the home immediately, or in a month, or a year, two years later, or maybe never. Does it really matter? Be careful not to pathologize this, despite the feelings it generates in you. You probably don’t know what it means. Your timing isn’t necessarily your parent’s timing. Period.
When someone we love dies, we don’t move through it, “recover” or return to a pre-loss normal. Pointedly, the idea that “closure” even exists has been proposed as outrageous. While we resume life, and it can look like it is back to “normal” from the outside, we are changed internally. That is how significant it is. At best, then, one integrates this loss.
What to do given the significance of this loss?
Experiencing losses, especially the death of someone you love, is both a universal and an intimate and deeply personal experience. Your parent can guide you.
At the level of the everyday and the concrete, you can ask what they want help with or worry most about doing now that their partner/spouse has died. You can help turn that worry into action. For my mom, immediate tasks were lawn mowing and snow removal, and being shown how to put gas in the car!
Be specific when you ask how they are doing. The general ‘how are you doing’ question has become a rather empty throwaway question. Get specific. How are you at night? At bedtime? How are mornings or meal times? The real value of asking is listening to the answer without trying to solve or fix it. It’s the expression of empathy and love and caring that gives the question its value.
Honour the relationship by telling stories and sharing memories. You will obviously have your own stories of your mom or dad, as well as family stories. Share them. Stories and storytelling are powerful and can help us metabolize grief.