A Few Tips for Coping When You've Just Lost a Parent
Losing a parent is something you can never prepare for. In my case, it wasn’t even necessarily surprising, because she was so sick, but it hurt in ways I could never see coming. My relationship with my mother was an incredibly supportive and loving one, and when she passed, it became abundantly clear how many parts of my daily life would change. In the wake of her death, I found myself grieving not only for myself, but for my dad, my sister, my grandparents, and my mom, who missed out on so many of the years and the moments she had always looked forward to.
I am by no means an expert in grief, and I can only speak on what worked for me, but I hope that by sharing a few things that helped me in the weeks and months after my mom’s death, you can find something that eases your pain too.
Write Down Everything, Big and Small, That Made Your Parent Who They Were
This seems like a really simple thing, but it felt incredibly healing to me in the days right after my mom died. I realized that there were a million little things that I might forget about my mom if I didn’t write them down, and every single one of them felt so much more important once she was gone.
I wrote down things like:
- She made an amazing apple pie
- She unironically watched Hallmark movies during every season (not just Christmas)
- She loved wine and 7-up
- She was a diehard Seattle Seahawks fan
When you put all of those little things together, it makes you realize that what made your parent so special – what makes all of us special – is a compilation of countless little quirks and preferences and behaviors. Putting them all down on paper gave me something to look at, smile, and remember moments that I might not have otherwise been able to pull from my memory.
Work with Family to Aggregate Photos and Videos
In addition to my tip above, I highly recommend working together with your family to pool the most precious photos and all the videos you have of your parent. Photos are a great way to reminisce on special memories. Videos are even better. You’ll never be more grateful to hear your parent say just about anything. Any video containing the sound of their voice is, in my opinion, worth keeping forever.
Also check for old voicemails. I've listened to the two I found over and over, because I get to hear her like she was every single day, calling me by my nickname and saying "I love you."
Seek Out Mental Health Care
Initially I didn’t feel like attending therapy, because talking about it just felt exhausting. However, I forced myself to at least try, and I did find it helpful to talk to someone removed from the situation. My therapist has given me helpful tips for sorting through my feelings and giving myself a break when I feel like I’m not handling everything in my life right now perfectly.
This isn’t the first time I’ve done therapy; I did it periodically throughout my mom’s treatment. However, as anyone who has attempted to find a therapist knows, it is a difficult process. When I’d sought out therapists in the past, through the Blue Cross Blue Shield Federal Employee Program, I could not find one, even after calling a representative to ask for help. When I joined Kaiser Permanente as part of my new job, I was able to get set up with a therapist right away. (Another proactive tip related to this: if you have multiple options for health insurance, research the mental health care accessibility for different insurance companies in advance! It may save you a lot of time and stress in the future.)
All of this is to say, try your best to find the right care. Even if you do get set up with a therapist right away, if you don’t feel like you’re gaining anything from talking with them, switch to a different one. See if your hospital has grief counseling resources as well if you can’t find a therapist right away. Unfortunately, our health care system does not always make it easy (or affordable) to access mental health care resources, but by taking initiative and asking for help, you often get where you need to be.
Talk About How You’re Feeling with Your Family (if you feel comfortable enough)
For pretty much my whole life, my mom was my primary source of advice, support and love. I was afraid, even before she died, that our family would become distant, and I wouldn’t have that type of person in my family again. My parents always complemented each other well; my dad provided a goofy sense of humor and calmness, and my mom provided the outright statements of love and pride. It was hard after she died to bring myself to talk about my fears with my dad, because I thought he might get offended. However, when I did have an honest conversation about my fears and all the things I thought we might lose as a family without mom there, he understood, and he spoke honestly about all the ways he was different as a parent compared to mom and how he would try his best to fill those gaps for my sister and I. Even though I know he can’t fill the hole that mom’s absence leaves, it felt good to let him know how important he is to me and how much I want for us to be there for each other even more.
If you approach your family with your concerns and fears and let them know how much they mean to you, it may help you better understand what every one of you needs and wants as you move forward and establish a new normal. And don’t feel the need to rush any conversations; let yourself process your own feelings first.
Try New Things
To help take my mind off of some of the things I used to do that may not feel the same anymore, I decided to take up new hobbies. I watched the Tour de France for the first time and bought myself a road bike and all the gear that goes with it. I also started this non-profit, with very little idea of what I was doing. Even just changing up how I went about my day and spent my time made a difference in how I was able to deal with all the other changes I couldn’t control.
I’ve had the perspective, since my mom’s death, that my life has been divided. One life ended when my mom died, and another began. Trying new things is just part of that, and I’ve genuinely enjoyed exploring hobbies and taking on opportunities that I may not have ever considered doing in the past.
See what you naturally take interest in over the course of your grieving process and run with it if it feels right. It never hurts to do something for yourself in this time, and you might end up with a lifelong hobby or unique experiences that you otherwise wouldn’t have had.
Let Yourself Be Angry, Sad, Distant, Or Whatever Feels Natural
Grieving is a unique experience. You can talk about it or process alone. You can lean on the people around you or find strength in yourself. You can dive into new hobbies or projects or just take time to regain some comfort in what you used to enjoy. Your emotions, whether anger, sadness, frustration, confusion, or some mix of many, are valid. Take and give whatever feels comfortable to you now, and don’t worry about what you are or aren’t doing for those around you. Grief is all-consuming, and it is often unpredictable, so don’t be surprised if you react differently than you would have expected. Trust your instincts, do what feels right, and feel whatever emotions feel most natural in the moment.
Hopefully these tips are helpful and give you some hope when it comes to what you can do to cope in the early days of grief. If you have any additional ideas on coping strategies that you have found helpful, please feel free send us an email and we can include them in a future post. Also, let us know if any of these were helpful or resonated with you!
Sending lots of love.