Monday, April 27, 2015

Consoling A Bereaved Parent, From A Distance

[Reviewed and updated June 10, 2024]

A reader writes: My husband and I are dealing with his mother's grief over losing his father (her husband), who passed away last month in a wonderful hospice in another state. I have visited your online grief support website, and although it helps calm my nerves somewhat to see that other widows are experiencing the same acute grief emotions as my mother-in law, we are at a loss for how to help and support her most effectively, as she is in one state and we live in another. We are concerned that she definitely needs to get one-on-one grief counseling, but she is so distraught that she cannot even call her doctor and arrange that, or even speak with the wonderful supportive people at the hospice there. What can we do from a distance?
          Do you know of any grief support sites or books that are geared to guiding those who want to help others who are grieving acutely, especially adult children? So many great shows on NPR address the dilemmas of adult children managing their parents’ health care and aging issues long-distance, but I’ve never heard anything about long-distance management of grief support.
          We are very concerned to address this quickly but also appropriately as she is enduring a stage where she doesn’t want to go on living, thinks that she is a burden to all her (amazing) friends and starting to lash out at them (that they can’t possibly understand what it’s like; she knows they think she should be better than she is; etc.)

My response: I’m so sorry to learn of the death of your father-in-law, and how good of you to be reaching out for ways to support your mother-in-law. I will share with you what I can.

First, since this death happened so very recently, I want to point out that the reactions you describe are exactly what I would expect this early in your mother-in-law’s grief journey. She is barely beyond the initial shock and numbness that normally occur in the aftermath of her husband’s death, and it is usually at about the 3- to 6-month point that she is likely to begin feeling the full impact of her loss.

Thoughts of suicide are not at all unusual either, but most often it is the pain of loss that the person wants to end, along with the (completely understandable) longing to be reunited with the deceased loved one. Bear in mind that there is a vast difference, however, between sharing fleeting thoughts of suicide and actually taking action to end one’s life.

I say this not to minimize your mother-in-law’s pain and sorrow—but to reassure you that it is quite a common and very normal reaction, especially this early in a person’s grief process. This is why I think it’s so helpful for family members like yourself to read as much as you can about the normal grief process, so you’ll have a better understanding of what you are seeing in your grieving loved one and know better how you can help to manage those reactions. Another person’s grief can seem quite “crazy” to the rest of us, unless we fully understand what normal grief looks and feels like. See, for example, some of the articles listed on the Death of a Parent page of my Grief Healing website.

Your husband’s mother may not have the interest or even the energy right now to reach out to the hospice that cared for your father-in-law. As an alternative, you might consider contacting the hospice yourself on her behalf. Ask to speak to the bereavement coordinator, and see if a volunteer or even a bereavement counselor would be willing to contact your mother-in-law, to let her know what bereavement services are available to her there.

Bear in mind, however, that you cannot “make” her do whatever you think is best for her, my dear. This is her loss and her grief, and she must find her own way through it. All you can do is find the best resources available to her and then gently encourage her to use them.

I don’t know if she is comfortable using the Internet, but I’m sure you know she is most welcome to join our online Grief Healing Discussion Groups.

I hope this information helps. Please know that I am thinking of you and your family at this sad and challenging time.

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