How To Support Your Parents When They’re Grieving

Photographed by Ryan Williams.
I remember asking my mother when it was she first felt like an adult. We were sat in the car on our long, dark journey north to Bolton, her hometown, to see my auntie. Was it, I wondered, when she had me and my brother? Had it been the time she'd moved into her first rat-infested flat-share in Holloway? Maybe it was when my dad drunkenly proposed to her?
As she rolled down the car window, emitting a pillow of smoke from her cigarette, her face lit red from the car ahead's brake lights, she whispered: "I think... I think you only really become an adult when your parents die."
It was not the answer I had been expecting. My mother's blithe tone was not that of someone who had already lost their mother, and then their second parent, their father, only two months previously — despite the fact that her body very much belonged to that someone.
My grandma passed away at the ripe old age of 86. Her death had been quick and relatively painless. After, we cleared her bungalow and emptied her attic. I had not seen my mother cry during the ordeal and she didn't flinch during the ceremony (not even when the vicar called me Neville by mistake and I laughed so hard snot came out of my nose). Beyond the funeral week, I had not given my mum the consideration I should have. I had not truly dwelled on the transition my mother, now 56, was undergoing. I had not really attempted to put myself in her position, and imagine what it is like to be orphaned.
Naturally, like most people (I'd imagine), I had always viewed my mother as the bastion of adulthood. My mother was, to me, impossible to shock, potentially frightening, a lie-detector rendered in flesh, a constant source of solace and a pain-proof person.
Her words got me thinking, though. The loss of a child is unspeakable, the death of a friend world-shattering and the passing of a spouse a pain not quantifiable in words. But... but the loss of your parents when you're a 50, 60, or 70-year-old person, is treated as par for the course, the natural denouement.
When it happens, we still stand on ceremony, whisper an earnest "sorry" at the wake, grip one another's hands in the church and write letters of condolence. But we don't talk much about the fall out. Why?
Dr. Sheri Jacobson, clinical director of Harley Therapy in London, specialises in short and long-term counselling, cognitive behavioural therapy and psychotherapy for a range of issues including bereavement. I talked to her about how to support your parent/s when they're grieving the loss of theirs.
Why do you think people losing their parents in middle age is considered "less tragic"?
As adults, we have been through enough emotional challenges, so we know our strength and that we can take care of ourselves. So we are in many ways less vulnerable than children. Yet we can also be less resilient and more set in our ways, and hide or deny our real emotions, meaning trauma can be just as hard or even take longer to recover from.
What might our parents be feeling when this happens?
The older we get, generally, the more aware we are of our own mortality, so when we lose those we love it can cause us anxiety about how quickly our own life is passing. And, unlike children, we experience regrets as adults. When our parents die, we can become mired in regret if the relationship was not solid when they were alive, and many old, buried feelings can come up for processing. If your parent has lost their parent they might also be feeling vulnerable, emotional, confused, guilty and tired. Processing emotions is exhausting.
How can we, as their children, help?
Don't patronise your mourning parent no matter how tempting. Don't tell them to 'try to feel better' or 'act positive'. Not only can this hinder their mourning process, but it can cause them to feel ashamed about their grief, which makes anyone feel worse. Simply support them in feeling however they are feeling.
And let your parent still be a parent. You might feel suddenly like the parent instead of the child, in seeing your parent so vulnerable. But don't treat them like a child. When we are mourning, we need to know that other structures, like our identity and roles, are still in place, or we can feel even more overwhelmed. Don't feel 'guilty' if they still want to be there for you. Just because they are mourning, it doesn't meant they aren't your parent, and it might bring them comfort to be able to give support to others. Really work at being a good listener. It's the best gift you can offer someone. Look into what good listening really is — don't interrupt, repeat what they are saying in your mind instead of letting your thoughts drift off, repeat back what they have said so they know you heard them.
Are there any signs we should watch out for?
Look out for your parent spending too much time alone. Some alone time is necessary to process. However, if they keep saying they are fine while pushing everyone away, it might be that they are not doing so well. Keep in touch even when they say they don't want it or need it. Sometimes we push people away when we need them most or when we are having big emotions that trigger old feelings of shame. Don't be pushy, just constantly reach out and let them know you are there.
If you notice that your parent doesn't want to talk to you or other family members, it might be more helpful for them to find support outside of their situation. Encourage them to seek such support, especially if you live at a distance and it's hard to see them often in person. Suggest a local support group, or even a bereavement counsellor.
What are particularly useful things to do/ say?
Say less, listen more! Don't assume you know what they are feeling, even if you are also grieving. We all have our own ways of seeing things and processing, even in times of mourning. So ask. Or even better, just be there. Talk about what they want to talk about, even if it seems trivial or odd. Sometimes someone who is grieving just needs to act normal... even if they don't feel it.
How might we be in a unique position to help?
As a child, you have experienced the true value your parent has so are in the unique position to remind them of this. Let them know they are valued and loved. Losing a parent can leave one also questioning if they themselves are a good parent on top of everything else, so this can lessen the stress. Of course, if your relationship is tumultuous, there is no need to be dishonest. Follow your parent's lead. If they seem to want to talk about their relationship with you and make improvements as part of their mourning process, and you are comfortable with it, it can be a time of new connection. But do be yourself around them. You are one of their great achievements just as you are.
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