By Rev. Jason Hilliard
If you have experienced the death of a loved one, you understand how paralyzing grief can be. If your parent’s spouse has died, your support is important in helping them cope. This is true whether the deceased is also your parent or a stepparent.
Loss can take an overwhelming toll on a surviving spouse. Often, in addition to losing a companion, the bereaved loses a caregiver. They relied on one another. When one dies, the other may not be capable of living alone, which adds to their sadness with loss of independence.
In the midst of your own mourning, you may ask, “How can I best help Mom or Dad during this difficult time?”
1. Ask good questions: How are you feeling? What are you thinking? How can I help you? How shall I pray?
Trying to discern the greatest needs of your grieving parent can be daunting. However, discovering the needs of which they are aware is not complicated. Ask them. Ask your parent how you can help empower them to sense control when they feel out of control. This will enable them to make decisions when they feel indecisive.
Their answers may surprise you, but will give you the best direction to meet the needs they are feeling. While some mourners focus on intense feelings, others are focused on new responsibilities or caring for others. Compartmentalizing fears, worries and responsibilities is a common coping mechanism. Don’t be surprised if your parent is more concerned for you than for himself or herself. One of the most likely ways a widow or widower can reassert independence is to identify someone else for whom they can provide care. Allowing them to console you may be the best thing you can do for them.
It’s OK if your parent doesn’t know the answers. Even with well-planned, predetermined arrangements, many responsibilities require attention following a death. Notifying authorities, making funeral arrangements, contacting family and friends, and informing legal, financial, and medical personnel are only a few. These responsibilities can be obstacles to expressing the emotion one is experiencing during a time of intense grief. The more you can delegate these kinds of responsibilities to others, the freer your parent will be to process their feelings.
Once your parent gives you a direction in which to proceed, ask for help from family members, friends or clergy. Remember your primary goal is for your parent to receive helpful support, not necessarily to be their sole supporter. Others may be more capable of meeting specific needs. Many people are willing to help if asked, but hesitate to intrude during such an emotional time. They need your guidance to help in ways that are beneficial, whether providing meals, performing household chores, or simply consoling your parent and reminiscing about their loved one.
A person may grieve intensely for months or years before they are able to cope with pain in a manner that softens the loss. Expecting individuals to “get over” grief is unrealistic. Some aspects of grief will last a lifetime. Some widows and widowers may want to talk about the deceased, while others avoid the subject. Again, take your cues from the bereaved. Ask them, “How would you like to remember Dad?” or “How do you prefer to talk about Mom?”
2. Don’t Compare Grief Experiences or Expressions.
Everyone is impacted by grief differently. Some may function without appearing to be greatly affected, while others become incapable of performing routine tasks. You may be concerned that the loss of a parent appears to be affecting you more deeply than your surviving parent. You might wonder why they seem to be taking the news so casually, or why they appear to be more debilitated than you imagined. They may wonder the same things about your expressions of grief.
Spouses, siblings and children will grieve differently from one another because each individual is grieving a different relationship. In some cases, a parent may be grieving the loss of a spouse from a second or third marriage. They may feel as if something is wrong when their grief experience doesn’t mirror their experience from a prior loss. Avoid comments like, “I know how you feel.” You don’t. Don’t say, “What you’re going through is just like something I once experienced.” It’s not.
3. Be prepared for intense relapses of grief.
Even when your loved one seems to be past the most difficult days, grief will resurface at holidays, birthdays, anniversaries or other special occasions. When emotions reappear, it is important to acknowledge and share feelings. Developing a plan in advance for how to cope with holiday grief is important. Ask your parent how they’d like to celebrate special occasions, and then honor their wishes. Perhaps it will be too painful to put up all the Christmas decorations, but baking their spouse’s favorite birthday cake will serve as a way to remember them and celebrate their life.
Throughout this time, you will likely be struggling with your own sorrow, depression and/or regret. Don’t ignore your own need to express your feelings. It may be helpful for you to seek help from family members, friends or a mental health professional.
Because everyone is different, there is no perfect way to care for those who are experiencing grief. Listening is always more helpful than speaking, but when you speak, do so with compassion. Following these steps for supporting your grieving parent won’t make your role easy, but it may give you a leg up in providing the compassionate care you want to show to the parent you love.
About the author: Rev. Jason Hilliard has been Minister for Pastoral Care at The Village Church in Dowling Park since 2013. Along with his duties of ministering to the many needs — including grief — of the members of The Village Church and Advent Christian Village he also leads a Dowling Park chapter of GriefShare, a national grief recovery support program.