Thursday, October 13, 2011

Helping a Grieving Parent

A reader writes - My mom died six months ago after a long battle with COPD (Chronic Obstructive Pulmonary Disease). Knowing that she had a terminal illness and that she was in the end stages of this disease, our family agreed to take her off life supports. I thought I had this all figured out, her dying. I thought I was prepared for that day. Boy what a shock to myself. This has been the worst thing that I have been through. I miss my mom so much that I feel physically ill. I don't think you ever really get over it, just need to figure out how to live with it. Now I am very worried about my dad. He has shut down. He drinks too much. He sits on the couch watching TV. He says he has no ambition to do anything. He misses her badly and is very lonely. My adult children do not visit him because they don't know how to handle him. So I call everyday and visit, have him over two or three times a week for supper. I don't know how to help him start living again.

My response - I'm so sorry to learn of the death of your precious mother, and I certainly understand your concern for your father.  How good of you to be searching for ways you can help him, even as you’re struggling with the weight of your own loss.  Let me see if I can offer some suggestions.

First, when evaluating someone else's grief as normal or abnormal, I think it's important to keep in mind that, although certain patterns and reactions are universal and fairly predictable, everyone's grief is as unique to that individual as his or her fingerprint.  There is no right or wrong way to grieve, and there is no specific time frame for it. A person in mourning can look awfully "crazy" to the rest of us, especially when that first wave of shock and disbelief wears off ~ and sometimes this doesn't happen until six months or more down the road.  In fact, many widowed persons report that the second year of grief is even more difficult than the first, precisely because the initial shock is now completely gone and they are faced with the full reality that their spouse is never coming back ~ all at the time when our society expects them to be "over it by now."

The sorrow that normally accompanies grief can look a lot like "depression" to people unfamiliar with grief.  But more often than not, what you're seeing is a very normal reaction: a natural response to losing a cherished loved one ~ especially when two people have been married for a very long time.  Your dad may feel that his very identity has died along with your mom, and now he is faced with deep and disturbing questions such as, Who am I now?  Who needs me now?  Where do I go from here?  and What's the point of going on without her?

You say your mom died after a two-year debilitating illness.  Since you had to “take her off life supports,” I assume that means she died in an Intensive Care Unit.  Was a hospice agency involved in her care at all?  Even if it was not, most hospices offer bereavement support groups to members of the community. Your dad  may not have the interest or even the energy right now to reach out for such help.  As an alternative, you might consider contacting the hospice yourself on his behalf.  Ask to speak to the bereavement coordinator, and see if a volunteer or even a bereavement counselor would be willing to contact your father, to let him know what bereavement services are available to him there.  Bear in mind, however, that you cannot "make" your dad do whatever you think is best for him.  This is his loss and his grief, and he must find his own way through it.  All you can do is find the best resources available to him and then gently encourage him to use them.

Maybe your dad would be willing to attend a grief support group if you told him you needed it for yourself and asked him to go along with you.  Even if he refuses, you might consider finding such a group for yourself, so that you can get the information, comfort and support that you need right now.  If you pay a visit to our online Grief Healing Discussion Groups, which include forums for Loss of a Spouse as well as Loss of a Parent or Grandparent, you will discover for yourself how people in similar circumstances can offer significant help and insights to one another.  Whether online or in a face-to-face support group, it is comforting and reassuring to connect with others who may be struggling to help their own widowed parents.

Just knowing what normal grief looks like, knowing what to expect and knowing how your dad can manage his reactions can be very, very helpful.  Such information is helpful to you as well, especially if you've had little or no experience with helping another who has lost a loved one to death.  See for example my articles, Grief: Understanding the Process and Helping Another in Grief. See also the articles, books and resources listed on my website's Helping Someone Who's Grieving page.

Please feel free to print out any of the articles I've written and give them to your dad to read, if you think they would help him.  I've also written an on-line "e-course" which you might consider offering to your dad; even if he isn't comfortable using the Internet himself, you could have the course sent to you (either as individual lessons or as an e-book) and then print the material out and give it to your dad to read if you wanted to do that.  You can get a sense of the course content and reviews here: The First Year of Grief: Help for the Journey.  If you go to my Articles and Books page you'll find many other reading suggestions there as well.

Again, I commend you for wanting to help your father travel this difficult path, even as you yourself are in mourning, and I wish both of you peace and healing in your journey.

Your feedback is welcome! Please feel free to leave a comment or a question, or share a tip, a related article or a resource of your own in the Comments section below.
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© by Marty Tousley, RN, MS, FT, DCC
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