When a Parent Dies: Managing Your Grief While Supporting Your Surviving Parent

When Kate McCullough’s father died suddenly from a heart attack at age 72, it hit her harder than she ever imagined. Not only was it unexpected — he was more fit than she was, she says — her dad, a renowned family physician and geriatrician, had just attended the premature birth of her second son two months earlier.

“I lost my mind,” says McCullough, an only child who lives in Seattle. “I lay on the floor and screamed.” Once the initial shock subsided, McCullough scrambled to board a flight with her newborn and was at her mother’s home in Vermont within nine hours.

Her mother, Pamela Harrison, a poet who was with her husband when he collapsed to the floor that morning after raising his arms to stretch, reacted differently. “She was very calm, very thoughtful,” says McCullough. “We both got a sadness in our faces that never left, but Mom likes to keep busy. She immediately started sorting the house. For her, that is solace.”

In the many months since her father’s death in 2016, McCullough discovered how challenging it was to manage her own grief while supporting her mother, and how different their grief journeys were.

Too distracted to grieve

McCullough traveled regularly to be with her mother that first year, but she was barely hanging on. “I fell off the deep end,” she says. Her grief only added to the challenges in her life. She quit her job, went through a hysterectomy for health reasons, had to move her family into a hotel after a flood, and was struggling to find interest in parenting.

Still, she felt it was important to be with her mother. “I felt better being of assistance, even though each trip was really hard. We were also trying to sort out how to work together,” she says. “There was a huge amount of love, but also a lot of stress.”

McCullough’s situation is not uncommon says Patti Anewalt, director of Pathways Center for Grief & Loss, Hospice & Community Care in Lancaster, Pennsylvania. Anewalt hears similar stories from adults in her organization’s Loss of Parent support group. “They talk about struggling to find time to grieve the parent who died because they are distracted or consumed by the grief of their surviving parent.”

It’s essential that adult children find time to grieve, says Diane Snyder Cowan, director of Western Reserve Grief Services in Cleveland. “The death of a parent can rock our foundation. Whether 5 years old or 50, we have the illusion that our parents will be here forever. Knowing they will one day die does not diminish the pain and soul-searching that is experienced when they do.”

Grieving vs. mourning

While grieving is important, so too is the act of mourning, says Anewalt. “Grief is the reaction you have to loss, but mourning is what you do with those grief reactions,” she says. “Everyone needs to mourn in order to adapt to all the changes that accompany the loss of a parent. What you need to do may be different from what your siblings, friends, or even the surviving parent may need to do to mourn this major change.”

Indeed, in this regard McCullough was quite different from her mother. “The first year I couldn’t say the word ‘die.’ She wanted to talk about everything all the time, how he died, over and over,” she says. “I didn’t want to talk about the details.” Even photos were too much. “Mom had this blown up picture of him from the memorial. I couldn’t escape or turn a corner without a new devotion to Dad somewhere.”

While her mother was surrounded by longtime friends, McCullough was feeling increasingly isolated, and even lost friends. “People would ask if Mom is moving to Seattle,” she says. “I’d say, ‘No! She has more friends than I do.’ It would have been a disservice to her to move her somewhere without support. She had a big community in Vermont and New Hampshire and nothing besides us here.”

Although McCullough eventually found support with a therapist and close friends, which allowed her to grieve at her own pace, she admits early on she tried to be strong for her mother. “It’s hard to recognize when you’re taking on someone else’s grief. Taking on too much for someone in terms of stoic strength just delays your own healing,” she says. “I was pretty keen on delaying mine.”

According to Anewalt, when an adult child tries to be “the strong one,” everyone grieves in isolation. It’s better to be open with your parent, saying something like: “I’m having a really hard time with this,” or “I can’t believe this is happening,” she says. “Admitting that you are struggling invites other family members to do the same. In this way you can better support each other rather than feel so alone.”

It’s also common for family roles to change or be redefined when a parent dies. “Communication and compromise are critical during this time of transition,” Anewalt says.

Everyone’s grief is unique

When McCullough stepped in to help her mother with all the overwhelming financial and household tasks her father always took care of — from figuring out passwords to locating six different checkbooks — she made sure to work with her mother rather than take over. “Mom’s system is a million scraps of paper all over,” says McCullough, who has a different organizational style. “I didn’t do it for her. I helped with simple systems. In my first visit we started calling credit cards, banks, the lawyer and financial advisor. She was hungry for information.”

Anewalt says other ways adult children can tend to their grief is by connecting with people who knew their parent to share stories, memories and pictures of favorite experiences. Rituals can also be helpful. “It may be as simple as lighting a candle in their memory or creating a special place in your home with pictures and mementos to use for a time of reflection,” she says.

One ritual that worked for both McCullough and her mother despite different grief styles was their evening phone chats. Her mother craved conversation at night before she went to bed. Yet nighttime was the time McCullough least felt like talking about her father. With their three-hour time difference and her mother’s early bedtime, McCullough says, “It was fine. Night for her
was 3 p.m. here.”

Anewalt offers a piece of advice for both the adult child and the surviving parent: “Get outdoors and breathe in the fresh air. Give yourself permission to have fun and take a break from grieving.”
Nearly four years after her father’s death, McCullough says of her journey that she wouldn’t change a thing. As for her mother, “She’s writing up a storm,” McCullough says. “Pulling out work from 30 years ago that needed ‘dusting off.’ She is flourishing.”

For adult children looking to support their surviving parent in their grief journey, it’s helpful to understand some common needs of anyone who loses a spouse or partner. The transition from being a couple to being alone is a significant change that can make it difficult to function in a world that has suddenly become so different, says Diane Snyder Cowan, director of Western Reserve Grief Services in Cleveland.

She offers these tips for adult children to support their grieving parent.

  • There is no right or wrong or good or bad way to grieve. Whatever your parent is feeling is okay, even if they want to talk to their deceased spouse. This is natural. In fact, many people find it helpful to continue to speak with their deceased partner or spouse.
  • While it’s important to attend to practical matters, from funeral arrangements and thank-you notes to handling bank accounts, it’s okay if your parent wants to put off other decisions and take time to think things through before making any commitments.
  • If a parent is struggling with what to do with their partner’s personal possessions, encourage them to trust their instincts. Let them decide when the time is right to go through these items. This is different for each person.
  • Encourage your parent to communicate to friends and family exactly what they can do to be helpful, as well as communicate what is not helpful, letting everyone know how best to be supportive.
  • Be watchful that they’re taking care of themselves, from nutrition and exercise to rest. Stress and grief can have an impact on the immune system.
  • If you think your parent needs more support, suggest or help them find a support group or individual counseling.