Months after Cara Zizzo’s mom passed away, she was back in her usual routine. She went to work and chatted with friends. But little reminders sent her down a spiral of sadness. “I would find a postcard she sent me at my desk and start bawling,” says Zizzo, who lives in New York City. Zizzo, who was 32 at the time, was crushed. “The hardest part is knowing that I’ll never have a mother again,” she says.
Even as an adult, the death of a parent is devastating. “You’re often losing someone who loved you unconditionally and gave you a sense of safety and stability,” says Holly Schiff, PsyD, a psychologist with Jewish Family Services of Greenwich in Connecticut. If you had a more complicated relationship, you may struggle with feelings of anger or regret.
Grieving the loss of a parent is personal. There’s no “normal” path or timeline. Everyone deals with 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.
Know that your emotions will change. Grief is tied to sadness. But you’ll likely go through a variety of emotions. “When my dad died, I was in shock,” says Jason Phillips, a therapist in Raleigh, NC. “Death wasn’t something we talked about in my family, so things went back to normal after a few days.” Weeks later, as Phillips started to process his dad’s passing, he was flooded with emotion.
You may go through these stages of grief:
- Denial. You may feel numb or shocked. This is your brain’s way of dealing with the overwhelming news.
- Anger. As you come to terms with the loss, your emotions may turn into anger. You may direct it toward other people, the parent who died, or a higher power.
- Bargaining. You may feel guilty, and think “if only …” and “what if …” This puts off the reality of your loss.
- Depression. As the loss sinks in, you feel sad. You may cry and have trouble sleeping and eating.
- Acceptance. You’ve accepted the reality. While you’re still upset, you’re moving on with your life.
Most of the time, you won’t go through these stages in order, says Alexandra Emery, PhD, a psychologist at Grit City Psychology in Seattle. You may jump from one to the other or experience more than one a time.
Let yourself grieve. The only cure is allowing yourself to feel the emotions, Schiff says. Pushing them away can lead to incomplete grief. That’s when you become stuck. You may not move on from numbness or anger. Schiff suggests carving out specific times to grieve. “When that time is through, do your best to push on and continue with your day,” she says.
For Phillips, he learned from his dad’s death. When his mother passed away decades later, he knew he had to address his grief. He saw a counselor and kept a journal to work through his emotions.
Get the support you need. Lean on your family, friends, and loved ones. You can also find a bereavement support group. “It’s helpful to talk to others going through the same thing,” Schiff says. If you’re comfortable, tell your boss and close co-workers. “That way, they won’t expect the same version of you to show up to the office,” she says.
Take care of yourself. It’s easy to lose yourself in the grief. But making your own health a priority helps you better handle the sadness and stress, Phillips says. Take time to get enough sleep, eat well, and exercise regularly. Also do things that bring you joy. “I like to work out and travel,” he says. “Doing those two things after my mom died made a big difference.”
Ask for and accept help. Let others help you, whether it’s assisting with the funeral preparations, bringing food, or helping out with the kids. For Zizzo, who lost her mom, she turned down her friends’ offer to fly cross-country to spend time with her. “I didn’t want to inconvenience them,” she says. But, looking back, she realizes that she should have let them help. “They wanted to be there for me,” she says.
Find ways to remember your parent. Do things that help you feel close with your parent, Emery suggests. You can make their favorite recipe, write them letters, and celebrate their birthdays. These acts can help you work through your emotions. “Every year on my mom’s birthday, my sister and I are always together to celebrate it,” Zizzo says. She also has everyday reminders. “I wear my mom’s jewelry,” she says. “She was an artist and I have her artwork hung all over my apartment.”
Prepare for emotions to return. You feel the most of your grief within the first 6 months after a loss. It’s normal to have a tough time for the first year, Schiff says. After then, you often accept your parent’s death and move on. But the grief may bubble up, especially on holidays and birthdays.
Consider getting professional help. A mental health professional, such as a therapist or psychologist, can help you process with your emotions. You can see one at any point. But it’s important to talk to one if your grief doesn’t get better with time or if it gets in the way of your daily life. For example, you can’t keep up with your job or family. A mental health professional can give you tools to manage your grief.