The reality of a parent’s death
Unless we die before our parents die, in the normal course of life, that unwelcome moment comes when our parents die. Losing a parent changes our life and family forever. In the following article we are going to look at some of those things that typically happen to us when we lose a parent, the kinds of grief reactions we experience at the time of their death and following their death, ways in which we can cope with their death, and suggestions as to how we can adjust to their death and rebuild our lives following loss. This article also includes suggestions as to what a surviving parent can do to assist young children and adolescents when a spouse, parent or grandparent has died. A general definition of griefIt is important, first of all, to understand grief. What is grief? Grief is a normal human reaction to any type of loss, separation or trauma. Throughout the course of our lives we experience many losses. For example, individuals might lose their home, business, vehicles, personal possessions, equipment, employment, financial security, livestock, pets, relationships, innocence, reputation, aspirations, and parts of their bodies due to surgery. As persons grow older they experience losses that occur as a result of the aging process: loss of youth, youthful body, hair, eyesight, ability to do certain things, sharp memory, powers of deductive reasoning, ability to “bounce back” as they did when they were younger, and physical health. Divorce is a loss that is traumatic for many persons, especially children. For some persons, divorce is more traumatic than loss due to death Some of our greatest and most upsetting losses occur when our loved ones die. This might involve a spouse, children, parents, grandparents, relatives, friends, teachers, colleagues, employers or employees. Some deaths take place gradually, as in the case of a prolonged terminal illness, while other deaths occur suddenly and without warning, as in the case of a heart attack or vehicular accident. Grief is no respecter of persons. It occurs in all of our lives, regardless of our race, gender, level of education, vocation, religious beliefs or philosophy of life.Although some losses are minor, other losses are major and have a traumatic effect. Ironically, the so-called “minor” losses sometimes prove to be not-so-insignificant after all. What appears to the outside observer to be only a “minor” loss in another person’s life could, in fact, be very significant, especially when that “minor” loss is understood in the context of the accumulated losses in that person’s life and the way in which that individual processes that particular loss. The separate losses in our lives tend to flow into the larger accumulation of losses so that, when a particular loss occurs in the present, it causes us to remember the pain we have associated with all the other losses that have occurred throughout of our lives. This can be explained in terms of a stimulus-response that occurs spontaneously. This can present a problem to the bereaved individual, especially if there are unresolved grief issues in his/her past history.Thus, grief is that normal human reaction we experience when loss occurs, and it is important for us to understand grief in order that we can be healed (physically, emotionally, mentally, socially, and spiritually) from its traumatic effects and also avoid some of the possible devastating effects of unresolved grief. Grief has been described by one of the leading experts in the field of grief work as the “number one killer.” We know that there is a definite relationship between grief, illness, and death.
How we react to loss (a general overview)
Before we look specifically at how we react to the death of a parent, we take a moment to look at a general overview of common reactions persons experience in response to the death of a loved one. These grief reactions are quite normal and common when viewed against the backdrop of the grief experiences of many persons. When one understands that many other persons have also had similar reactions to grief, it brings about an assurance that fosters peace of mind. Getting the right kind of information about grief plays a crucial role in the overall process of recovery and healing.
1. Common physical reactions: Changes in body chemistry and bodily functions, rapid heartbeat and pulse, elevated blood pressure, difficulty in breathing (sometimes hyperventilation), dizziness (sometimes fainting), difficulty in swallowing and digesting food due to a constricted esophagus, complications with digestive track (nervous stomach, irritation, ulcers, vomiting, constipation, diarrhea), muscle cramps, aches, and spasms, profuse sweating, skin rashes and irritations, headaches, insomnia, fatigue, over-sleeping, diminished or insatiable appetite, migraine headaches, frequent urination, and urinary track infections.One of the typical physical reactions to the shock of loss is that there is an inordinate amount of adrenalin in the bloodstream. This is associated with the “fight or flight” syndrome that is voluntarily activated anytime the body senses threat or danger. When this happens the excessive adrenalin stimulates the heart to beat faster which in turn forces more oxygen into the bloodstream. This added oxygen and adrenalin can cause tingling in the extremities or lips as well as a jerking and shaking of the muscles or hands. One can experience temporary and uncontrollable involuntary shaking of the entire body, and unless one knows what is causing these kinds of bodily reactions, it can be quite alarming.
2. Common emotional reactions: Shock, numbness, disbelief, denial, anger, guilt, fear (panic, losing control, paranoia, and phobias), bargaining, depression, loneliness, emptiness, lethargy, irritability, and withdrawal. We feel that our world has suddenly fallen apart. Our normal feelings of safety, security, and stability are shaken and shattered, and this results in our feeling unsafe, insecure, and unstable. The basic foundations of our life are shaken. Much that helped to provide shape, definition, purpose, and continuity to our life has suddenly vanished. Life is thrown out of balance. We experience isolation and separation-anxiety. Life is suddenly changed and chaotic. That which is familiar and wanted is replaced by that which is unfamiliar and unwanted. We are overwhelmed by the depressing and upsetting thought that life will never be the same again.
3. Common mental reactions: Mental confusion (inability to concentrate, remember and plan), preoccupation with loss and the deceased, obsessions and obsessive-compulsive reactions, depression, replaying certain scenes over and over in our mind, attempting to deny death and resurrect the deceased, visual and auditory hallucinations, attempting to recreate the past, regret, frustration over unfinished business, assigning blame, loss of humor, jealousy, bitterness, cynicism, pessimism, and negative thinking (doom and gloom). In the case of the murder of a love one, it is not uncommon for survivors to think about seeking revenge.
4. Common social reactions: Withdrawal, pulling the shades, attempting to shut out the world, wanting to be left alone, escaping, drawing into a shell (grief cocoon), finding it difficult to be involved with other people, avoiding crowds, finding it difficult to function at work or take care of one’s basic responsibilities.Many bereaved persons have observed that some persons avoid them following a loss or they avoid mentioning the name of the deceased to the bereaved person. They avoid mentioning anything in regard to the death of the deceased. These kinds of reactions can result in only reinforcing the isolation.In contrast to this reaction of withdrawal, many persons become overly outgoing, active, and involved. For example, they may spend a lot of time in shopping malls or in church activities. The idea of being alone at home is intolerable, and they find ways to avoid this.
5. Common spiritual reactions: Being angry with God and blaming Him for the death of a loved one. This often leads to a temporary withdrawal from God, prayer, and religious activities. Many go through a “dark night of the soul.” In contrast to those who react by being angry with God and withdrawing from God, many say that the experience of grief brought them closer to God than they had ever been. They report that their grief opened the door into a deeper relationship with God.Thus, the positive side of this in regard to one’s spiritual experience is that grief can become an opportunity for the bereaved person to thoroughly and honestly examine their values and beliefs and move toward a more realistic, mature, and personal faith. The impact of loss is so profound that it reaches to the very core of our being and affects every aspect of our life--physically, emotionally, mentally, socially, and spiritually.