Monday, January 7, 2013

How to Cope With the Sudden Death of a Parent

In my early months as a counsellor, a young woman came to see me for help in handling her relationships with partners. I'll call this client "Margaret". She was the elder of two girls and was extremely close to her mother, but less so to her father. Some of her difficulties with partners stemmed from the fact that she was not close to her father and lacked a strong male role model.

I received a phone call one day to inform me that Margaret's mother had died in her sleep. She was 48 years old and in good health. There had been absolutely no warning.

Two days later I saw Margaret for her regular counselling session. She behaved normally and when I asked how she was coping, she told me she was "fine". While I knew this could not be the case, I found it impossible to engage with Margaret over her mother's death. She was, of course, in a stage of denial; her mother's death was too terrible to believe, so she was denying the reality to herself.

I am using this case to illustrate how inadequately our society sometimes deals with death. While the entire family rallied to organize the funeral and support the bereaved husband, Margaret's father and closest relatives avoided talking with her about her mother. They failed to recognize that Margaret was traumatized by her death.

Sadly this is not an uncommon reaction. At a loss to know what to say or how to help a bereaved person, many people say nothing. Equally unhelpful (although the intention is good) are comments such as "I know how you feel".

Life is never the same once a parent dies and the most important thing, especially for a young person, is to identify people around you such as trusted family members or friends with whom you can talk about your parent. You need to find ways to express your feelings, whatever they are.

Different stages of grief have been documented, but in my experience when a parent dies the child can experience a vast range of emotions, in any order, and often several emotions at the same time. It is normal to feel anger and guilt as well as sadness. My suggestions for coping include:

    accepting all your conflicting and overwhelming emotions
    spending time with people you feel understand, at least in part
    taking time out, from school or work
    writing about your feelings in a journal
    as life settles down, writing a letter to your parent to say goodbye
    collecting all your special photos together and making an album

Rituals are important and I have encouraged clients over the years, when a parent has died, to consider what they would like to do to honour them. In the case of a sudden death, this is all the more important. I mentioned writing a letter to say goodbye; this has been a powerful and healing experience for many clients, even if they were reluctant to do so initially.

Finally, my advice would be to be kind to yourself and to accept that what you have experienced is a traumatic event. Your life, as you knew it, will be changed and you need to take as much time as you need to mourn and grieve, as you adjust to living without your parent.

No comments:

Post a Comment