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Coping with the loss of a parent


Months after Cara Zizzo’s mother passed away, she was back to her usual routine. She went to work and chatted with friends. But small reminders sent her into a spiral of sadness. “I found a postcard she had sent me to my office and started bawling,” says Zizzo, who lives in New York City. Zizzo, who was 32 at the time, was crushed. “The hard part is knowing that I’ll never have a mother again,” she said.

Even in adulthood, the death of a parent is devastating. “You often lose someone who loved you unconditionally and gave you a sense of security and stability,” says Holly Schiff, PsyD, a psychologist with Jewish Family Services in Greenwich, Connecticut. If you’ve had a more complicated relationship, you might experience feelings of anger or regret.

Grieving the loss of a parent is personal. There is no “normal” path or timeline. Everyone manages it in their own way. But taking steps to understand your emotions and find support can make the process a little easier. Start with these strategies.

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Know that your emotions will change. Mourning is linked to sadness. But you will likely go through a variety of emotions. “When my father died, I was in shock,” says Jason Phillips, therapist in Raleigh, North Carolina. “Death was not something we talked about in my family, so things got back to normal after a few days. Weeks later, as Phillips began to process his father’s passing, he was flooded with emotion.

You can go through these stages of grieving:

  • Denial. You may feel numb or shocked. It’s how your brain handles overwhelming news.
  • Anger. When you come to terms with the loss, your emotions can turn into anger. You can direct it to other people, the deceased relative, or a higher power.
  • Negotiation. You may feel guilty and think “if only…” and “what if…” This negates the reality of your loss.
  • Depression. As the loss goes deeper, you feel sad. You may cry and have difficulty sleeping and eating.
  • Acceptance. You have accepted reality. As long as you are still upset, you get on with your life.

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Most of the time, you won’t go through these steps in order, says Alexandra Emery, PhD, a psychologist at Grit City Psychology in Seattle. You can switch from one to the other or experience it more than once.

Let yourself cry. The only cure is to allow yourself to feel the emotions, says Schiff. Pushing them aside can lead to incomplete mourning. This is where you get stuck. You cannot quit numbness or anger. Schiff suggests setting specific times for grieving. “When that time is over, do your best to move on and get on with your day,” she says.

For Phillips, he learned of his father’s death. When his mother passed decades later, he knew he had to face her grief. He saw a counselor and kept a journal to work on his emotions.

Get the support you need. Rely on your family, friends and loved ones. You can also find a bereavement support group. “It helps to talk to others who are going through the same thing,” says Schiff. If you’re comfortable, let your boss and close coworkers know. “That way, they won’t expect the same version of you to show up at the office,” she says.

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Take care of yourself. It is easy to get lost in grief. But making your own health a priority helps you cope better with sadness and stress, says Phillips. Take the time to get enough sleep, eat well, and exercise regularly. Also do things that make you happy. “I like to train and travel,” he says. “Doing those two things after my mother died made a big difference.”

Ask for and accept help. Let others help you, whether it’s assisting with funeral preparations, bringing food, or helping the children. For Zizzo, who lost her mother, she turned down her friends’ offer to fly across the country to spend time with her. “I didn’t want to disturb them,” she said. But, looking back, she realizes that she should have let them help. “They wanted to be there for me,” she says.

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Find ways to remember your parents. Do things that help you feel close to your relative, suggests Emery. You can make their favorite recipe, write letters to them, and celebrate their birthdays. These acts can help you overcome your emotions. “Every year on my mother’s birthday, my sister and I are always together to celebrate it,” Zizzo says. She also has daily reminders. “I wear my mother’s jewelry,” she said. “She was an artist and I have her artwork hung all over my apartment.”

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Prepare for the return of emotions. You feel the most of your grief in the first 6 months after a loss. It’s okay to have a rough time for the first year, says Schiff. After that, you often accept the death of your parents and move on. But grief can flare up, especially on holidays and birthdays.

Consider bringing in a professional. A mental health professional, such as a therapist or psychologist, can help you deal with your emotions. You can see one at any time. But it’s important to talk to someone about it if your grief doesn’t improve over time or if it gets in your way in your daily life. For example, you can’t keep up with your work or your family. A mental health professional can give you tools to manage your grief.

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