Coping with the loss of a parent—how to manage grief and move forward

Every bereavement is different, but the loss of a parent can feel particularly tough—here are things you can do to cope

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Losing anyone is difficult, but the loss of a parent can be particularly challenging—whatever stage of life you're in. There's no timeline for grief, and working through those tough emotions can feel overwhelming. However, there are coping methods that can help you get through the harder moments.

"Everyone is different and we all hold and appraise information, emotions, and memories differently," says Bianca Neumann, a psychologist and head of bereavement at Sue Ryder. "This means that no two experiences of grief are ever the same." 

Losing a parent can prompt difficult emotions, including anxiety, depression, panic attacks, and conditions like sleep anxiety and insomnia. It pulls the rug from under us in terms of our stability. The loss of a parent can also bring our own mortality into question. "The generational change of going from being someone’s child to possibly the oldest person in your family can take a huge emotional toll on you," adds Neumann.  We asked the experts how the loss of a parent impacts us, and the coping strategies that can help. It's important to know that you're not alone, and these loss of parent quotes from others may bring some comfort. 

 How the loss of a parent impacts us 

The loss of a parent can create an enormous gap in our lives. Not only do our maternal and paternal figures act as our primary caregivers often, but they’re also one of our longest-standing human relationships. 

"Stable, functional parent and child relationships allow people to go on and become independent, thriving individuals," says Clinical Psychologist, Dr Marianne Trent. "When that parent stops being there, it can lead us to question, 'Well, who am I?' , 'Where is my safe and stable base to return to and check in with?' When we lose a parent it can feel a bit like we have lost our scaffolding, and as a result, everything can get a bit wobbly."

Parents often form the foundation of family dynamics, and when they pass, sometimes the cracks can show. "If you take out a parent, it can shift relationships,” says Carole Pemberton, Bereavement Volunteer at Cruse. “It may change your relationship with your brothers and sisters, and it can also thrust you into a role of responsibility—particularly if you’re the eldest child. Losing a parent unsettles your world and the grief can feel very different from losing a friend. Often, we take our parents for granted. But when they die, it can capture just how important they’ve been in shaping us."

How to deal with the loss of a parent 

Dealing with the grief of losing a parent often takes time and space to process your emotions. But with the right support, patience, and coping tools, there are ways you can make the process more manageable. 

1. Lean into your emotions

"When it comes to losing a loved one, feelings of jealousy, envy, anger as well as sadness are very common, but not everyone talks about them openly," says Neumann. "These feelings often get pushed aside." 

Everyone grieves differently and this might mean that you don't outwardly show or feel the same emotions as other people within your family. There's no cause for concern if that's the case.

"It’s normal to feel angry, numb, or to just simply not feel anything," says Pemberton. "Sometimes grief is delayed by shock, and sometimes days feel better or worse than others. We’re given a picture that grief is just sad, but it’s full of contrary emotions and if you’re feeling nothing, it’s because you’re not able to feel anything at that time. It just means you’re not ready to process those emotions yet."

Don't feel pressured to say what you feel out loud. Sometimes sitting with your thoughts and journaling can be a helpful way to work through those trickier emotions. "If you're finding it hard to open up, start with something very simple such as ‘I’m struggling with my grief’ and take the conversation from there," advises Neumann. 

2. Practice good self-care

When we grieve, our needs and wants can feel insignificant compared to the loss of a loved one, but it's important to care for ourselves, both mentally and physically, during this time. 

"Try to keep to a routine and if you’re struggling to do this," says Neumann. "Create a list of ‘basic needs’ and tick them off as you go—or have reminders set to pop up on your phone." This list could include things like drinking a glass of water, taking your daily supplements, brushing your teeth and hair, having a shower, and making something nourishing to eat.

If you have young children or caring responsibilities, don’t be afraid to ask for someone else to lend a hand with school runs or hosting playdates so that you can rest. "You can’t pour from an empty cup and so, you need to give yourself permission to take care of yourself," says Dr Trent.

3. Take one day at a time

Routines can help structure our day and give us purpose. Focusing on getting through one day at a time, rather than looking ahead and thinking about the future, can help you cope with those difficult worries and feelings, especially in the immediate aftermath of losing a parent. 

"You may find that keeping busy and throwing yourself into different activities helps," says Neumann. "If this works for you, try to do things even if you don’t feel up to it, such as taking a walk or having a coffee with friends. Of course, you may find you need to take things more slowly and spend some time gathering your strength before you meet with friends or go to your weekly yoga class. Do whichever works best for you."

4. Seek support

"When you are grieving the loss of a parent, you may find comfort in talking to others in a similar position," says Neumann. "This could be a friend who has also recently lost a paternal or maternal figure, or you could consider joining a support group, such as Sue Ryder’s Online Bereavement Community, where you will find that many other people are experiencing the same feelings as you."

Often, grief can feel very difficult to talk about. It's important that we don't put pressure on ourselves to open up if we don't feel like doing so just yet. Self-help options, such as self-help books, podcasts, and online tools, can be a great way to help you work through those emotions and find people who are in the same position as you. It's also worth considering whether therapy work might be right for you, to help you process your grief. 

"There is growing research to show that resiliency is common when it comes to recovering from the loss of a parent or of a loved one," says Psychotherapist Comfort Shields. "Some people may not need or wish to start therapy to help with this, however, for those who are finding grief debilitating or who would simply find it helpful to talk through their loss, I recommend finding a therapist to help."

Dealing with grief if you’re estranged from your parents 

"Just because you no longer had a relationship with someone, does not mean you don’t grieve for them when they pass," says Neumann. "If you are estranged from your parent when they die, your grief may feel more complicated. This may be because you are still processing and grieving the loss of your relationship as well as their death."

If your relationship with your mother or father was complicated, then you will probably experience a range of different emotions, from anger to sadness, and even guilt. It’s important to understand that all those varying emotions have validity and acknowledge their presence. 

"There is also an element that you are grieving what should have been and the relationship that you wish you had, and grief can put a huge spotlight on the things you feel you missed," says Neumann. "You may feel regret for not repairing your relationship before they died, relief that they are no longer part of your life, anger that they were not the person you needed to be, or sadness that you never felt you had an apology—or any number of other emotions."

How to cope with grief on Mother's or Father's Day

Special occasions can really trigger feelings of grief. Dealing with grief at Christmas time, on Mother's or Father's Day, and on birthdays or anniversaries can be particularly hard. "The first Mother’s or Father's Day is often the hardest if we've recently lost our parent," says Pemberton. "We’re often bombarded with emails offering discounts or Mother's Day gift suggestions, but some organizations do offer to stop those emails coming into your inbox."

Take some time to think about what you want to try and do ahead of the day. "Maybe that's not going into card shops or not going out for lunch, so you don't see other families celebrating together," suggests Pemberton. "Think about what can you take control of. Some people like to use these days as remembrance opportunities. That could mean spending the day by yourself, or you might want to do a Zoom call with the rest of your family. It’s really about deciding what is going to be right for you."

Sometimes, remembering a loved one can look like wearing a piece of jewelry that they gave you or baking their favorite sweet treat that day. It doesn't have to be grand or showy, just something that would have made them smile. 

"Days like Mother’s or Father's Day can be a point in the calendar to say you’re not dead, you’ll live on," says Pemberton. "They still make you feel sad, but it will also help you keep those memories alive."

w&h thanks Bianca Neumann, Head of Bereavement at Sue Ryder, Dr. Marianne Trent, Clinical Psychologist, founder of Good Thinking Psychological Services and author of The Grief Collective Book, Comfort Shields, Psychotherapist and Grief Expert and Carole Pemberton, Bereavement Volunteer at Cruse

This Mother’s Day, Cruse Bereavement Support is working with psychotherapist Julia Samuel to offer support on how to cope with complex feelings when grieving a difficult relationship with your mother. Tune into Cruse’s Instagram on Tuesday 22 March at 13.30 to hear more from Cruse and Julia. 

Stacey Carter

With five years of experience working across print and digital publications, Stacey is a journalist who specializes in writing about the latest developments in health and wellbeing. She has also previously written for Women’s Health, Get The Gloss, Fit & Well, Stylist, and Natural Health magazine, covering current health trends and interviewing leading figures in the wellness space. 

When she’s not talking to health experts, you can probably find her hiking somewhere in the Welsh countryside or near the coast. Her favorite two ways to switch off are a Pilates class and a glass of wine with a home-cooked meal.