A Parent Dies
By Bernadette A. Moyer
Whether it is a family member, a friend or a member of your community who dies, you can help.
A policeman dies in the line of duty leaving behind five young children and his wife. A mother of three is murdered. A father dies suddenly of a heart attack, too young. A plane crash, an automobile accident, a suicide, or an illness can all result in the loss of a parent. Unexpected loss of a parent that comes far too soon can be very difficult to understand and to accept. Death is the one given we have in life and yet we refuse to talk about it. We think we are respecting the family’s privacy by not bringing it up. Yet in one way we are only further alienating those who are already suffering. It is not uncommon for surviving spouses and their children to feel different, alone and isolated. These feelings may be natural and at a time when they may be at their greatest need for human comfort.
How often our heart strings are tugged when we hear of the death of a young parent? A parent who dies and leaves behind a spouse and children. We want to help, yet we do not know exactly what to do and say. So nothing is said or done, for fear of saying the wrong thing. We witness their grief while feeling helpless.
When a spouse and a parent die it has long and lasting effects on the family. The foundation the family is built upon is under major reconstruction. Expected or not the death and loss can be overwhelming. Initially most people will have their extended family support and that of close family friends. But before long everyone will return to their normal schedules while the family is left to grieve.
If you want to help in a personal way, here are a few tips:
What Do They Need
Understand that your family member, neighbor or friend may need many things. They may need time alone. They may need time to cry and talk about their loss. Listen well and allow them to speak. They may need to tell the same stories over and over again. I remember telling stories about my husband and his death many times. I knew that I was getting better and had purged much of the pain when one day I was tired of listening to my own stories.
Help With the Kids
It might be helpful to a surviving spouse if you extend invitations to his/her children to join your family for dinner or to see a movie. A parent who loses a spouse and has children may very well be operating with less energy.
Consider leaving a casserole at the door step with a simple note that reads, “From Our Hearts” and your name. Sometimes picking up a few groceries or a cake or pie and taking it over to their house can mean so much to a surviving mom or dad that has no interest in cooking or eating at this time and yet has other mouths to feed.
What to Say
It is better to say things like, “I am very sorry” or “I cannot imagine your grief” rather than say “I know how you feel.” We all react to grief and loss differently and we really do not know how another feels in a time of grief.
Do not tell a grieving adult or child to “get over it” or “you should be over it by now.” Each person grieves in their own way. Many times because of parental responsibilities and a job, the surviving parent goes into “overdrive.” They rise to the occasion, seemingly handling everything like a pro, only to have a delayed reaction six months or a year or two later. In my experience and with all the grief work I have done with surviving spouses many do not “bottom out” until about 18 months later. This is when many really feel the loss and have a greater awareness of the void in their life and have fully accepted the death. This is also when most people think that they are “over it.”
Personal notes and cards can mean so much and are non-threatening. Writing about a happy or positive memory about the deceased person does so much to show and say “I valued him/her as well.” It also says “They touched my life.” The personal letters I received and the sharing of stories of my husband warmed my heart and made me appreciate that he mattered to others too.
Don’t Forget Them
Many times during the weeks and months after the loss our efforts are more appreciated and needed the most. Largely because there is usually an abundance of support in the first few days and weeks, but it often withers as people move on and forget. In the early days and weeks the family is shocked or has yet to feel the full impact of their loss. Showing care and concern later can be so helpful and make a big difference.
Therapy Comes in Many Forms
Encourage counseling, inspirational books and movies and support groups. Others have suffered similar losses, they made it through and so will the survivors. Relating to others who have been there makes us feel less alone and better understood. Faith and religion help. Use phrases like “This group I have heard about is for widows and helped my friend Pat, how do you feel about a support group?” Give an inspirational book or a journal. Writing about their feelings can be helpful. Children may benefit from support groups and journals or sketch books too and help them with their thoughts and feelings.
The Holidays Arrive
Holidays can be the most difficult times as are anniversary dates. These are times when we may think about our loved ones the most. Acknowledge this. It is also a time when we reminisce about past holidays. Many times family and friends may decide not to mention the deceased as they fear it will be upsetting. Better to acknowledge the loss and communicate; “If you want to talk we are here for you” or in a quiet moment, “How are you doing today?” Never force the conversation, but do open the door to it. When we say nothing it is as if we are saying “Let’s pretend everything is fine.” We are afraid to say the wrong things and by saying nothing it may be interpreted that the deceased person is forgotten.
Children and Grief
Many times children, especially teenagers will try and shrug off their feelings of grief. They might even feel the need to put their own feelings aside in an attempt to help their surviving parent. They may feel the need to be strong and bury their own grief.
My Experience and Take Away
My daughter was just two when her father died. She was a smiling, happy child and as she grew an excellent student. It wasn’t until high school when one of her close friends died, that she understood death. That death opened up her buried grief and the loss of her own father. It happens that when small children lose a parent to have their grief show itself and affect them much later in life.
Plants, flowers, books, pins, inspirational items all say “I am here and I care.” One of the things that comforted me in my grief were books on death and dying, books that I could read and reach out for comfort in the dark hours of the night when I felt so very alone and needed comfort the most. My faith in God and my belief in Angels in many ways gave me comfort and saved me.
The single best thing we can do is listen and allow our grieving friend or family member the opportunity to talk and to cry. Often a well-timed hug can make a world of difference.
I am here today, to tell you that it is not easy and we will experience a wide range of emotions after we lose a loved one to death. I was blessed with the desire to connect with others who had already gone through this and their strength and support made it easier for me. Crying is so cleansing and when the tears stop and they will it is just like the rain, and so often the sun will shine again and even brighter!
Bernadette A. Moyer was widowed at age 23 and at age 32 met and later married a widower when his wife died leaving him to raise pre-mature infant twins. She raised three children, each of whom lost a natural parent. Her oldest daughter will be 35 this year and her adopted twins just turned 23.
She is the author of numerous inspirational articles and her book Angel Stacey/Daddy in Heaven is available at amazon.com. Her website is www.bernadetteamoyer.com and you can find her on Facebook at www.facebook.com/bernadetteamoyer or can write to her at firstname.lastname@example.org
(This article was first published in June of 1997 and updated January of 2015)