Losing a parent is a brutal personal loss, but it’s also especially challenging for your surviving parent who has lost their spouse. Often in these circumstances responsibility falls on you to help your parent manage. It can be a difficult balancing act to manage the practical details on your parent’s behalf while trying to sort through your own emotions and the demands of your own life. Knowing what to expect can help you focus on all the tasks that need to be done in the wake of tragedy, rather than becoming paralyzed by the seemingly monumental challenge at hand.
Grief has a very specific pattern. Elizabeth Kubler-Ross originally wrote about the five stages of grief, which are denial, anger, bargaining, depression, and acceptance. But the stages don’t necessarily happen in that order or for any set length of time—grief is different for everyone. For example, some want to hold on to their spouse’s possessions, while others feel comfortable getting rid of personal items within the first couple of weeks or months. There is no right or wrong way to grieve.
It is likely that in the immediate aftermath of their spouse’s death, your parents will become overwhelmed by their suddenly changing circumstances. For example, some of the issues they may face include a loss of independence, learning new tasks, and financial complications, just to name a few. It is important during this time that you make yourself available to assist your parents with these challenges.
Keep an eye on your loved one’s health, especially basic needs such as eating and bathing, which can take a backseat after a loss. Of particular concern is both access to nutritious food as well as the ability to prepare it. Food insecurity is a staggeringly common problem in the United States with a shocking 14.7% of seniors reporting that they were at least marginally food-insecure.
Take a look at the issues, such as an inability to drive or a spouse who did all the cooking, and come up with solutions such as grocery or meal delivery services. If you live close by, take the time to help them cook through some of their favorite recipes that their spouse used to make, thereby teaching them skills to take care of themselves and providing a format for you to help keep the presence of your deceased loved one in your daily lives.
Remember that grief belongs to the griever, and being real and acknowledging someone’s pain is the best approach. Tell stories about the person you lost that will make him or her remember the good times. You and your family don’t want to forget the deceased person, so don’t avoid talking about him or her. Helping your loved one reminds him that you are here and understand.
If you are concerned about your parent becoming lonely in the absence of their spouse, do what you can to encourage them to reach out to others. It may be a good opportunity for them to reconnect with past schoolmates or other friends. Other ways you can help address their loneliness include encouraging them to adopt a pet, take a class, or volunteer their time.
If you’ve recently lost a parent, you are probably hurting, as is your surviving parent who just lost their spouse. It’s important during this time of transition that you help your parents grieve. Just as important is your role in ensuring that your parents continues to make healthy decisions, especially regarding food and self-care. To help them feel less alone, encourage them to form new connections or restore old ones. As afamily, you will heal from your loss as you honor the memory of your lost loved one.
Written by Claire Wentz