Specific reactions to the death of a parent
Now that we have considered what grief is, how it generally affects survivors, and how bereaved persons react to grief, we now turn our attention to some specific ways in which grief affects us when we lose a parent and how we react to that loss. When a parent dies, the strength and support we as their child felt is suddenly gone. As we bury our parent whom we have known, loved, and appreciated all our lives, we experience shock, numbness, and loneliness. Young children and adolescents commonly have a wide range of reactions to death that include: denial, panic, anger, and guilt. A child’s response and reaction to death is determined by how he/she views death. For example, three-to-five-year-olds generally view death as reversible and not permanent. Cartoon characters they watch on television get up and walk away after being hurt or killed. Most six-to-eight-year-olds view death as irreversible and permanent. By age nine the child is usually able to view death as a natural part of the biological process, and they generally understand that death is an inevitable and normal experience that will happen to every person. Other factors that determine the young child’s or adolescent’s reaction to death are: their intellectual and emotional maturity, previous experiences with death, and the quality of the relationship they shared with their deceased parent. When we as an adult child lose our parent, it is not uncommon for us to be thrown back into early childhood and to re-live memories of ourselves and our parents from the long-ago. We cry and sob, which is a natural human reaction to loss. We may feel panic or be unable to accept the fact that our parent is dead. Fear causes us to question whether or not we can deal with this overwhelming loss. We may experience anger at the doctor, nurses, God, or even our deceased parent for dying and leaving us. We may experience guilt—for cruel words or unkind things we have said or done. Grief guilt may causes us to feel that we could have prevented our parent’s death, and we make such statements as: “If I had only been there…I should have taken them to the doctor for a check-up…If I had only telephoned…If I had only picked up on the signals…If I had only not said what I said.” We may also feel guilty and have a lingering sense of regret if our parent had expressed the desire to do something with us (such as attend a ballgame or take a fishing trip together); however, we kept putting this off and our parent died unexpectedly before we could honor this request. Now, in our grief, we realize that this request can never be honored. If our parent had a prolonged illness, it is not uncommon for us to feel guilty because we felt a sense of relief at the time of their death. If our parent died suddenly and unexpectedly, we may deny that their death has occurred. We may also experience a feeling of unreality. Another common reaction we may have is that of being overly preoccupied with our deceased parent. This preoccupation with our deceased parent can be overwhelming, causing us to think almost continuously about the death of our them and the way in which they died. It is also not uncommon for us to imagine that we either hear or see our deceased parent.When we lose a parent it affects us mentally. Our grief can cause confusion, difficulty in concentrating, remembering, and planning. As time moves on after the parent’s death, it is not uncommon for the surviving child to experience a type of depression and fear (even panic attacks) that are precipitated by the grief that is caused by the parent’s death.When our parent dies, it also affects us physically. It is not unusual for a bereaved child to experience shortness of breath and difficulty in breathing, diminished appetite, vomiting, diarrhea, lethargy, elevated blood pressure, rapid heartbeat, muscle cramps and aches, weight loss, sleeplessness or fitful sleep, and irritability.Because of the strong mental and emotional reactions to the death of a loved one, it is not uncommon for bereaved persons to think they are losing their sanity. However, as strange and unsettling as these reactions might seem, one needs to keep in mind that they are quite normal for persons who are experiencing grief.
Parents play many roles in our lives (secondary losses)
As the reality of the loss of our parent sets in, we realizes that we have experienced not just one loss but a number of losses due to their death. Our parent played a number of roles in our lives. For example, they might have been the one to whom we turned to share confidences, seek advice and wisdom, share our thoughts, relive the memories of the past, and seek spiritual counsel. They may have been our role model, best friend, and confidant, the one whom we trusted explicitly and completely.For many children, the old family homeplace has been the hub and reference-point of life; however, the death of a parent has changed all of this. No longer will one’s parent be present for traditional family holiday gatherings and meals. Now, at the family dining table, there is an “empty chair” the deceased parent used to occupy. The child realizes that the deceased parent will not see him/her finish college or a graduate degree, attain distinguished career accomplishments, have children and grandchildren, and fulfill the goals of a lifetime. When our parent dies, our memory-bank is opened, and a flood of stored memories flow into our conscious mind. These mental pictures are like a video documentary, which carries us back through the years and experiences of our lives to the time of our childhood and earliest recollections. Not only do we recall our experiences with our parents, but we also remember our emotional reactions to some specific events. Memories will range all the way from those that are happy to those that are sad. Some memories will be upsetting, even traumatic. Some of those experiences were so profound in importance that they changed, shaped, and defined our lives.
Factors that shape and define our grief
Each person’s grief is unique and is defined, in part, by such things as: the circumstances and conditions involved in a parent’s death, the number of siblings, the status of the other parent—whether the other parent is alive or dead, their state of mental and physical health, and the circumstances in one’s own life. Each person’s grief will be different when they lose a parent because of the history of their relationship with that parent. This means that every parent-child relationship is unique, and this greatly determines the way in which we grieve following the death of a parent.Other factors that influence the way in which we grieve when a parent dies are: the quality of the relationship we shared with our parent; being an only child versus being one of several siblings; where we were born in the birth-order of the of other siblings, past conflicts which may never have been resolved (either between the child and parent or between the child and other siblings); the way in which our parents died, other experiences we have had with death and grief; how old we are; our values and religious beliefs.