Helping a Parent Through Grief: A Daughter’s Guide
When my father died my mother found herself alone for the first time in nearly 60 years. Since meeting at 18 they had done everything together, from college to first jobs to big moves, all underscored by a mutual thirst for adventure that took them around the world and back. Together they’d built a close knit family, an inviting network of friends and an unwavering sense of community that inspired us all.
And then, unexpectedly, my dad — my mother’s consummate companion — passed. We were devastated, but she stayed strong through it all. He would have wanted her to celebrate his life, she said, and, more importantly, help his beloved family during this difficult time. He wouldn’t have wanted her to mourn but, instead, to push forward in the life they’d created together.
For me — the oldest daughter — my father’s death raised a unique challenge I hadn’t considered before: how do you help a surviving parent through their grief while, at the same time, working through your own? As the mother of a young child I was prepared to help my daughter navigate her confusion and sadness. But what could — and what should — I do to help my mother maneuver the complicated and deeply personal journey that now lay ahead of her?
A simple first step: ensuring her health and well-being
I knew I needed to do something immediately, I just didn’t know where to start — and I know this is an emotion many daughters share. I ultimately chose to take on what, while difficult, seemed the most obvious and clear cut: I made sure her basic needs were tended to. When the constant influx of casseroles, roast chickens and pastries died down, I made sure her kitchen was stocked with favorite foods that required little or no preparation — and I made sure she actually ate, even if it was just a few bites. I did laundry, changed sheets, wiped down bathrooms and came in each day to open windows and let in some much needed sunshine. My goal was simple: to ensure my mother was safe, comfortable and cared for. I knew the rest would eventually follow. Not sure where to start? Consider these tasks:
- Laundry and light housekeeping
- Grocery shopping, cooking and meal prep
- Bill paying and day to day banking
- Help with life insurance claims
- Pet care, including walks, grooming and feeding
- Picking up medications — and ensuring they’re taken
Only you know what your parent needs — and, remember, if these tasks feel overwhelming because of your own grief and existing commitments, consider bringing in outside help. Whether it’s a sibling, neighbor friend or professional service, it’s entirely appropriate to ask others to step in. Often people want to help but don’t know what to do. Not only will soliciting their assistance alleviate some of the pressure on you and your parent, it will also help those friends and loved ones work through their own grief by pitching in and helping out.
Though my mother was visibly grieving, she’s a private person and rarely articulated how she was feeling after my father’s death. I knew encouraging conversation would not only help her work through powerful emotions but, at the same time, would give me and my family a much-needed outlet to express our own grief.
The most important lesson I learned? Listen more than you speak. When my mother was ready to talk I was there to listen, nod, hold her hand and laugh at funny anecdotes. Sometimes I shared, too — but mostly I was there to take it all in and, in the process, help her work through her grief.
Be patient, not proactive — and always take their lead
In that vein, many people I spoke to acknowledged this slow, patient approach — this, I was told over and over, was not the time to be too proactive or force a parent’s hand when it came to grieving or, even, moving on. Remember, grief can take months or even years to work through. When your parent is ready to take a next step in their own process, he/she will — any efforts to expedite their journey will, ultimately, end poorly.
But at the same time, it’s important a child take a parent’s lead in the grieving process. I heard countless stories about a parent hanging on to a grocery list in their partner’s handwriting or leaving a deceased spouse’s voice on the answering machine, and how important it was for these adult children to be respectful. But, at the same time, many of the women I spoke to shared stories about their mothers donating closets full of their fathers’ clothing, or grieving dads gifting deceased wives’ jewelry to loved ones within days — or even hours — of their deaths.
Even if it’s not how you would have dealt with the situation, it’s important to remember that everyone deals with grief differently. While your parent may find comfort in holding onto their memories, it’s equally likely they’ll manage their emotions by doing — purging, cooking, sharing, cleaning. Your job is to be supportive, positive and helpful, no matter what you would have done.
A final note: don’t ignore your own grief
Though it’s essential that you help your parent deal with their own emotions, don’t forget you’re entitled to grieve however feels right to you. Encouraging dialogue with your parent will help you work through your own emotions as well but, beyond that, don’t forget to take time to reflect and mourn. It could be as simple as taking time each day for a quiet walk or private moment, spending time with a friend, spouse or loved one and talking through your feelings or anything else that feels right to you. Not only is it critical you work through your own feelings, but taking this time will ensure you’re best able to help your parent during this time.
When your mother or father dies helping the surviving parent navigate their grief can be very challenging. As the oldest daughter I knew it was my responsibility to step up and help my mother after my father’s death, from ensuring her basic needs were tended to, to encouraging her to express her emotions to, ultimately, standing by her as she began to move forward — and move on. Standing by your parent will likely be one of the hardest things you do in your entire life — but it’s also one of the most important journeys you’ll ever take. Know everything you do is appreciated and needed, even if it’s never said. And, above all, be sure to take time for you. You, too, have suffered from a meaningful loss and it’s essential you take the time you need to grieve.
Jaime Hollander, Gardens of Memory Contributor