Coping with the loss of a parent
It’s an understatement to say that the death of a parent – however elderly or frail – may have a lasting impact on the family and particularly on a surviving husband or wife.
The emotional upheaval will be intense and never really go away, but there’s also the practical upheaval, both immediate and possibly long-lasting, particularly if a surviving parent was very reliant on the other.
We don’t have a quick fix. But, we’ve learnt some useful advice and found some great organisations to give practical help for you and your family.
You can skip to specific sections using the quick links here:
The immediate practicalities of death
If this is all new territory hopefully you will find help from the GP, hospital, care home and the undertaker.
There is admin to be done initially for the Death Certificate and to enable the undertaker/funeral director to care for the body. Read our guide on what to do when someone dies.
The undertaker was fantastic, leading Dad through all the paperwork around Mum’s death and the practicalities of the funeral with tact, kindness and always with an eye on the detail.
Many people say that the initial weeks until after the funeral/cremation are the easiest because there is so much to be done.
It’s the weeks and months afterwards, when the letters and calls slow down, and the reality of life without someone after possibly almost a lifetime together starts to become real.
It’s a terrible cliche but us Brits, particularly of a certain generation, are synonymous with that stiff upper lip. It may have helped build an empire and win wars, but it’s not very useful when someone dies. Absolutely no use at all infact.
For some even referring to the existence of the F word is difficult. This is compounded for the older generation because everyone around them is dying.
“Swimming in grief” is how bereavement specialist and psychotherapist Julia Samuel OBE refers to those in their 70s, 80s and upwards.
We were lucky enough to speak to Julia when she published Grief Works, her very successful book which whilst not being the cheeriest of reads provides amazing insight and thoughts about grief and bereavement.
Pillars of Strength
The 8 Pillars of Strength is a framework developed by Julia to help people understand and deal with grief. She speaks about each of the Pillars in separate blog posts. Really worth a read.
There will be local organisations and support groups to help, including Cruse, bereavement specialists (although we understand that they may have a waiting list in some areas).
You may find the local hospice provides an outreach service such as a monthly coffee/chat.
Any of these might be particularly helpful for someone who doesn’t want to talk to family.
Watch out for signs of depression. Not surprisingly this is a strong possibility. It can be confused with grief. We spoke to Dr Alex Bailey about depression in older people and he had lots of practical advice about the signs to look for and what to do for the best.
Talking about the old days…
Chatting about the old days and the person that they loved may seem insensitive but there is scientific evidence that when elderly people are encouraged to replay the past, particularly happy times, it positively boosts their health.
It might also be a frightening prospect to start talking about a parent who has died and all the emotions it might unleash. But, once you start, you might all find it a cathartic process. Sometimes just listening is enough and being there.
But, dying of a broken heart
In all seriousness, on top of the emotional juggernaut following a death, be aware of the very real health risks.
Sadly there is also scientific evidence that people can literally die ‘of a broken heart’. It seems that after a major loss the immune system is weakened, making older people more susceptible to serious infections such as pneumonia.
The practicalities of life after
If the emotions weren’t overwhelming enough, the task of filling the hole left by the death of a partner can also feel nigh on impossible.
Not only the bureaucracy of notifying everyone about the death, but then just day to day household tasks and possibly helping the surviving partner with even basic jobs such as reading the meter or paying the household bills.
Checklist of day to day things
- Who pays the bills? You need to know how the home runs; who pays the bills? Where are they kept? Does someone need to take on this task?
- Additional help around the home? Might you need to think about more help such as a gardener, cleaner, or a meals delivery service?
- Official documents: what now needs to be altered – Wills, mortgage, deeds to the house, Power of Attorney etc
- Mobility and getting around: can they still drive or do you need to arrange alternative transport?
- What about the clothes and personal possessions? We talk a bit more about this below – not a small task.
- What if your remaining parent becomes incapacitated? You may need to put a few things in place and our guide might help.
- Where and how they are living? No rush for big decisions but you may want to discuss downsizing, relocating or staying put.
What to do about the clothes and stuff
Sorting out the clothes and possessions is a daunting task. Some people want to do it as fast as possible, others keep everything just as it was. But, when you’re ready to do it, here are a few ideas from others who have been through it:
- Giving clothes or possessions to other members of the family can be a very positive way to remember someone; the recycling nature of this is also practical and therefore hopefully a positive aspect;
- Having jewellery remodelled for a more modern look can feel barbaric, but better than it lying in a drawer never being worn; maybe selling some to pay for a few pieces to be remodelled might be a fitting tribute;
- If you’re giving clothes to charity it might be worth taking it to the next town or two away; who wants to meet Mum’s favourite coat on someone else in the local supermarket?
- E-bay might be another practical option; give the proceeds to charity – or maybe put towards a holiday;
- Giving possessions to relevant clubs or organisations is another positive step;
- If the home is awash with mobility aids and other support – you may find the NHS won’t take it all back; again there are charities that should be able to help;
Building a different sort of life
Starting again can feel almost impossible. Particularly if the surviving spouse had been the primary carer. What on earth do they now do with their empty day?
No easy answers and no timeframe. It’s something that can’t be rushed and hopefully will happen by itself. They are likely to be exhausted (as are you), so will certainly take some time to catch up on broken nights and huge amounts of stress, compounded by the death itself.
It seems for some that getting through the first year of everything can be a watershed after which life does start to move on. For others the second and even third years are worse – the person they loved really isn’t coming back.
It might be that an old old hobby or interest comes back in to play. Or something entirely new and unconnected with an old life.
Sadly for widows it can be generally less merry socially than for their male counterparts.
Celebrate a life
Hopefully you will arrive at the point of being able to celebrate life and remember the good times and funny moments. It will all take time.