Managing Stages of Grief After the Death of a Parent

Updated May 15, 2020
Hands holding an old photo

Losing a parent can create a cascade of complex emotions and thoughts to surface as the parent-child relationship, regardless of your age, is deeply tied to core attachment values that can impact your feelings of safety, trust, and stability. As you move through the grieving process, keep in mind that you may or may not experience each stage of grief, and that they may be in a unique order.

Emotional Shock and Denial After Death of a Parent

When you first learn about your parent passing away, your mind and body may go through a period of complete shock. During this time you may feel confused, internally chaotic, and in a deep denial as to what just happened. These feelings of shock are your brain's way of protecting you during this intensely painful time. The temporary shock allows you to continue on in survival mode as you slowly begin to reconcile what happened. Because the parent-child relationship is deeply entrenched in feelings of safety and love, this shock can become numbness that lingers for quite a while. Know that this reaction is completely okay for a loss this meaningful.

Coping With Denial

During this part of the grieving process, psycho-education can be a helpful tool. Understanding the grieving process in general and the differences you may experience due to your specific parental loss can be a small source of comfort and allow you to have a bit of an understanding as to what you may experience as the grieving process continues to unfold.

Having a Support System

Remind yourself that this is a part of the process of grieving and it's going to take some time for the reality of the passing to sink in. Losing a parent is a deeply personal experience and you may go through feelings of denial for weeks to months, and for some even years. This is one of the most difficult relationship losses to psychologically reconcile. You may pick up the phone to call or text them just out of habit and feel a deep sadness when the reality of the loss re-awakens. Try to have one or two trusted loved ones that you can call in the moments where you want to speak to your deceased parent. This may help you feel less isolated and alone.

Grounding Exercises

Note that during this time your brain is beginning to re-organize and process this loss. You may feel energetically drained and not feel up to participating in activities that you normally would, and that's okay. Losing a parent, whether you had an amazing relationship, a dysfunctional one, or an estranged one is incredibly difficult and hard to wrap your head around. During times of low energy, it can be helpful to work on grounding exercises that can give you a bit of a reprieve from the pain you are experiencing. Breathing exercises and practicing mindfulness are wonderful ways to stay connected to yourself, especially because this particular type of loss can trigger dissociative behaviors.

Anger and Emotional Outbursts

Feeling bouts of anger, sadness, guilt, and any other emotional experience is totally normal during this time. Although uncomfortable and painful, emotional overflows are your brain's way of processing this loss. Losing a parent may bring up difficult feelings and thoughts about yourself, your relationships, and what your future may look like without them in it. For example:

  • If you had a great relationship with your parent, you may grapple with feeling abandoned or orphaned by them and you may find this incredibly painful to come to terms with.
  • Those with strained or non-existent relationships with their deceased parent may feel guilty about not reconciling, or never confronting them, which can lead to feeling a severe lack of closure regarding their passing.
  • You may also experience negative thoughts about yourself triggered by this type of loss such as, "I am unlovable" and "Everyone leaves me."
man looking stressed out at home

Coping With the Anger Stage of Grief

This stage in the grieving process may be one of the first times you experience intense, chronic emotions. The reality of your loss may begin to set in a bit more. This can feel scary, intimidating, and completely unfair. Although difficult to do so, this is the time to really allow yourself to process what you are feeling and connect with yourself. Not fully processing your emotional experience at this time can potentially prolong your grieving process and negatively impact your quality of life.

Create Helpful Mantras

Find healthy ways to channel your anger that don't include anything that could dampen or suppress your emotional experience. Creating a mantra for yourself can help you during this highly emotionally charged time. Mantra examples include:

  • "It's okay to feel the way I'm feeling and it's okay to miss my parent- I'm strong and I know this emotional intensity isn't permanent."
  • "I'm so grateful for the time I had with my parent and it's okay to feel angry about their passing."
  • "I am working towards letting go of the emotional guilt I am carrying around."

Work Through Negative Beliefs

Challenge negative beliefs about yourself that were triggered by this loss. Take some time to free write about what beliefs about yourself are coming up. If you are stuck, continue asking yourself what this loss means about you until you feel like you've hit your core negative belief. For example, an individual doing this exercise may move through the following beliefs:

  • "I've lost my mom." What does this mean about you?
  • "I'm alone." What does this say about you?
  • "I have no-one." What does this mean about you?
  • "I'm unlovable."

To challenge I'm unlovable, unpack what it means to be lovable. Spend some time thinking or writing about why you are lovable (the opposite of your negative core belief) based solely on you as a person, not outside experiences or circumstances.

Find a Grief Counselor or Support Group

Connect with a support group or counselor to help process the intense emotional waves that you may be experiencing. During this time, you may also experience heightened symptoms of anxiety, depression, PTSD, and obsessive disorders. Keep in mind that the parent-child attachment is intimately tied to your unconscious drive to survive. Without parents, infants would not be able to survive, so this type of loss can shake you to your core, even as an adult. Because this can lead to uncomfortable mental health symptoms, it's important to keep track of your wellbeing and reach out for help as soon as possible if you're noticing a severe decline in your mental health.

Bargaining and Finding Meaning Stage

During this time you may experience intense thoughts and questions about the fairness of what has happened, as well as look to find meaningful ways to reconcile this loss. Emotions may have set in and you may alternate between feeling okay and experiencing deep sadness, longing, and anxiety. You may also begin a more intensive self reflection process, recall special memories of you and your parent together, and try to understand what your life will look like going forward as you navigate creating a new routine for yourself. You may also feel like you're progressing in terms of processing this loss and then suddenly get triggered by something that reminds you of your parent. This may lead you to feel numb, abandoned, and isolated.

Interventions for the Bargaining Stage of Grief

During the bargaining or finding meaning stage, it's a great opportunity for you to process your emotions and thoughts in a more outward way. This is the time where some individuals find it helpful to share their experience with others and create grief related journal entries or artistic projects that help release some emotional tension that has built up. You can consider:

  • Honoring memories that you and your parent shared privately can feel really special, especially during this transition phase when you are making meaningful connections and better understanding your relationship with your parent from a new perspective. You can do so by creating something artistic for them, planting a garden for them, creating a scrap book, and jotting down favorite memories.
  • When you are in the process of seeking meaning, whether you had a great or non-existent relationship with your parent, you can think about what this relationship taught you and how you can apply this to your life in a helpful way.

Share With Others

Sharing your experience with others can help you release some thoughts and emotions you have already processed. This can be done in a parent loss grief support group, in an online support group chat, and with a counselor. Outwardly processing can make a huge dent when it comes to feeling emotional relief. Sharing your most vulnerable moments with others may take away the power of painful thoughts and memories. When it comes to parental loss, working through feelings of guilt or non-closure is really important in facilitating healing.

Going Through the Depression Stage of Grief

During this period, which you may revisit a few times, or stay in for a prolonged period, you may feel highly anxious, experience symptoms of depression, and feel overwhelmed with the loss. The reality of what has happened may have set in more, and you may find it hard to know how to best take care of yourself. You may feel intense helplessness and hopelessness and feel resistant to reaching out to others or creating a plan for the future as doing so may trigger even more intense thoughts about the loss of your parent.

man talking to female therapist

Coping With Intense Thoughts and Feelings

This may be one of several very low points you experience during the grieving process. After the initial shock during the beginning stages of coping, something happens as the reality of your parent's absence sets in more. You may feel exhausted as the grieving process can feel as if goes on for quite some time, while simultaneously not really feeling ready for the process to end. In some sense, the grieving process keeps you intimately connected to your parent, and once you are ready to move on, you may feel fearful about not being as close to the memory of them. During this time, you can consider:

  • Reaching out to a counselor who specializes in parental loss. Many people find this period to be one of the most painful points of grief. In this sense, it's important to push yourself to continue to process this loss as not doing so can lead to unhealthy thoughts and behaviors that come out at a later time. Speaking with a counselor may help you feel supported during this time and may give you space to process your feelings in a non-judgmental and safe way.
    • Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing (EMDR) therapy is a good treatment option to check out, as it focuses on working through traumatic or highly emotionally charged thoughts and memories.
  • Journaling and using grief focused journal prompts can help you continue to process this loss and stay connected to your body. At this time, some people may go through a period of feeling numbness and shock again, so it's super important to continue to check in with yourself and actively process what's going on in your mind and body.
  • Equine therapy is a great option for processing parental loss, and can be a powerful treatment modality for those who aren't into in-office talk therapy.

The Acceptance Stage of Grief

Although it is called the acceptance stage, there can still be moments or periods of time when you experience the previously discussed stages. Remember that these stages are not necessarily in order, you may experience them in a different way, and you may skip a phase. During the acceptance period, your brain has processed and re-organized around the notion that your parent is no longer with you physically, but is with you in different ways. You have reconciled this loss psychologically and for the most part you may feel more at peace with the thought of your parent no longer being with you. During this time you may:

Keep in mind that holidays like Mother or Father's Day, and any other family related holiday can re-trigger your grief and you may experience one or more of the grieving stages again. Finding special ways to celebrate and remember you parent on these particularly challenging days can bring you some comfort.

Working Through Grief When Both Parents Pass Away

When both of your parents pass away whether you lose them close together or at the same time, you may feel incredibly overwhelmed by the intense shock of losing both at once. While each individual grieving process is unique, it's not uncommon for a double loss to take longer to recover from psychologically. You may experience unconscious and conscious thoughts about abandonment, loneliness, and safety. Be sure to take extra good care of yourself, find trusted loved ones who you can speak with, reach out to a therapist who specializes in parental loss, and join a support group where you can process this unique experience with others who have been through something similar.

Upset lonely kid girl

How Long Does Grief Last After the Death of a Parent

Grief is completely personal and can last for weeks, to months, to years depending on various factors. Factors that impact grief include:

  • Your age during the loss- children and teens may have a harder time processing their grief and recovering
  • Your relationship with the parent who passed away- if you were very close and saw and/or spoke to them frequently, the loss can feel extremely difficult to process
  • Your internal coping skills and your insight level
  • Your support system
  • Your adaptability to change- Those who have rigid thinking may have a more challenging time coping with this type of loss

How to Help a Child or Teen Cope after the Loss of a Parent

Children and teens who lose a parent during their childhood are at a higher risk for developing symptoms of mental health disorders that can negatively impact their quality of life and well-being versus young adults who lose a parent. The way the parent passes can also impact the risk for developing symptoms of mental health disorders. Parents who pass away due to suicide, murder, and accidents are associated with an increased risk of developing mental health disorders. Young children are especially vulnerable to experiencing these painful symptoms. To help a child or teen cope:

  • Validate their feelings
  • Help them understand why they are feeling a certain way
  • Purchase age appropriate literature that you can give them or read with/to them
  • Know that their expression of grief can look different from an adult- they may have anger outbursts, withdraw, have crying bouts, feel intense numbness, and blame themselves
  • Keep their routines in place- routines and similarity provide feelings of comfort and security
  • Help them find meaningful ways to honor their parent

Understanding Parent-Related Grief

Grieving the loss of a parent or parents may feel like one of the most painful and difficult periods in your life. Know that you deserve to take the time you need to grieve and that it's okay to reach out for support if needed. And if someone else has lost their mother or father, use these examples of what to say when a friend loses a parent to help you express your feelings.

Managing Stages of Grief After the Death of a Parent