How To Help Your Spouse or Loved One Cope With Loss of a Parent in Adulthood
You just found out your girlfriend, boyfriend, husband, wife, signifcant other, domestic partner has lost their parent, their grandparent or a sibling. You’re standing on the sidelines and wondering–what’s my role here? How do I help? In particular, you may not have known the deceased very well and may feel somewhat awkward about how to heal your partner’s wounds.
Today I’m going to offer you some methods and attitudes that will help you to help your loved one through this difficult transition.
There are practical things you can do for your grieving partner. Here’s a short list:
First, you may want to check in with your wife/husband or loved one by asking them, “is there any way I can support you right now?”
Your loved one may have little to say, may still be grieving and may not even know how they can be best supported. In that case, feel free to ask your loved one “Is it okay for me to spend some time with you? When are you free?
Another way to assist your loved one is to let them know “if you want to share your feelings, your thoughts or anything else with me, I want you to do it. Even if you just want to call during the day when I’m at work and talk about something else, I’m here for you.”
GOOD MOM/BAD MOM
Many people have conflicted feelings about their relationship with their parents. They may feel some disappointment in the way their parent lived their life, or in the way their parent interacted with them.
You can share with your loved one “Hey, I know me and my parents had our tough times. If you’re having any thoughts or feelings, positive or negative, about your parents or yourself, I’m open to listening to you.”
YOU DON’T NEED TO HAVE ALL THE ANSWERS!
It’s okay as a loved one to not have the answers. You don’t need to have any solution and can simply empathize with having the problem. Simply stating, “I hear you…that’s hard…that must have been difficult…I’m so sorry that happened to you.” can be enough.
We don’t have to whitewash someone’s life simply because of their death.
It’s okay for your loved one to have mixed feelings or even anger towards their deceased parent. Feelings are not facts and they can change over time.
CONDOLENCES AND TOKENS OF APPRECIATION:
Giving a handwritten condolence card goes much further than posting condolences online. It says, “I took the time to find this card, handwrite my thoughts and give it to you rather than jetting off a few sentences online.”
You might even decide to order a small gift of food or flowers to let your loved one know you care.
But in this day of electronic communication, a ‘real-life’ communication speaks volumes about your feelings for someone.
REFRAMING FOR THE POSITIVE:
If you didn’t’ know your loved one’s parent very well, you can ask “Would it be ok to ask you a few questions about your parent?” If they consent, you can ask “What are some of the positive ways your parent affected you or the lives of others?”
Yet another way that you can be supportive is to ask, “Can I tell you some positive things I remember about your parent?”
Still another way to be supportive is to tell your loved one “Can I tell you some positive things I see in you and your life that I think might have been influenced by your parent?”
You might also ask your loved one, is it alright if I share your loss on Social Media? Would you like to keep this private? They may appreciate the thoughts of others but not have the energy to post it themselves so that others may support them. Of course, honor their request for privacy if they request it.
Reminding your loved one of the positive Values their parent stood for may be another method to helping them. Values are not morals or commandments but rather operating principles for a persons life. Values can range from Adventure to Honesty to Compassion to Humor and many, many more.
If your loved one cannot think of their parent’s Values and how they embodied them, try to elicit your loved ones own personal Values for their own life. In many respects, Death forces us to think about the finality of our lives and to e-valu-ate our way of living. This may be a good time to help your loved one re-focus on their Values. One good way to elicit Values is to ask your loved one ‘how would you like to be remembered many years in the future? When they identify them, ask them ‘are you living your Values?’ If not, you can ask ‘what can you do this week, something small, that would move you in the direction of your Values?’
HELPING YOUR PARTNER TO THINK RATIONALLY ABOUT THEIR LOSS
Before offering advice of ANY kind, ask your partner if they want to work on feeling less overwhelmed or depressed. Normal grief does not need to be reduced or eliminated. It’s up to your partner whether or not they feel its having a severe detrimental effect on their life. However, if they are ready for some advice, let’s help them to think rationally. Here’s how:
It’s important to remember the 3 main distorted thoughts that humans have when confronted with difficult circumstances in life.
These thoughts are:
I should be perfect
She should have treated me nicely and fairly
The world should be an easy place for me to live in.
These distorted thoughts can easily arise in the wake of a loved one’s death.
I SHOULD BE PERFECT:
‘I should be perfect’ is an insidious thought that hides in other kinds of thoughts and feelings—thoughts like–
I should have been a better son/daughter.
I should have said I love you before she died.
I should have visited him more often.
I should have seen her medical problems earlier.
I should have saved him.
I should have been kinder, more understanding.
And because I didn’t do any or all these things, I am a low-down, dirty, awful, terrible human being. I’m essentially rotten garbage.
These kinds of thoughts, if left undisputed, usually result in a feeling of low self-worth, low self-esteem, shame, self judgement, self-condemnation.
If you see your loved one reacting in this self-condemning way, try to gently ask them—’if I had done something similar, if I hadn’t been perfect for my parent, would you judge me as a rotten person?’
Most loved ones will demur and tell you that they’d never treat you that way. If so, you can ask them ‘Why do I get better treatment than you do? Why would you give me compassion and understanding and not give the same to yourself? You’re imperfect, so am I. Lets find a way for you to give some of that understanding to yourself.’
If you think that their parent had some kindness in them, you can also ask ‘if your parent had a consciousness right now, wherever she is, do you think she would want you to suffer right now?’
I MUST SUFFER GREATLY:
Another reason that people often torture themselves about the death of a loved one is the belief that if they don’t suffer greatly, the lack of suffering also makes them a ‘bad person.’ They believe that if they don’t feel awful, miserable, terrible that they are not properly honoring the loss of their parent.
You can gently ask them “Wouldn’t your parent have the goal of you being a happy person?” If the answer is ‘no’ (which sometimes it can be) you can ask them, ‘do you believe that a parent’s wish for their child to suffer is a worthy parenting goal?’
You can help your loved one by reminding them that there are other rituals that can allow them to honor the life of their parent—visiting the burial site, lighting a candle at their place of worship, prayer, donations of time or money to a worthy cause in honor of their parent. Using artistic, creative expression in paint, music, or writing in honor of the parent.
MY PARENT SHOULD HAVE TREATED ME BETTER:
This thought, a variant on ‘s/he should have been nicer or fairer to me’ can also cause unnecessary upset when held onto in a rigid fashion. When your loved one holds this belief they are essentially saying, ‘My parent should have been a different person than who he was. She should have behaved differently. He should have apologized and made true amends to me. Because she acted unfairly she was an awful, terrible human being.’ The usual result of this is deep resentment, anger, rage. In this maelstrom of emotions, people can act out, behave compulsively with substances, food, sex, spending and more.
If your loved one is holding a grudge against their deceased parent, it’s a tough situation. They may have genuine, legitimate reasons to feel mistreated or abused. In these situations, its not always the death of the parent but the death of the possibility of reconciliation, of rapprochement and apology from the offending parent. The possibility has died along with the person.
At these times, its important to help your loved one separate the poor behavior of the parent from your loved ones own self-worth, self-evaluation. Often when a parent mistreats a child, the child secretly harbors the idea that the parent didn’t find the child worthy of respect, and by extension, that the child was not actually valuable. They may internalize this as a belief that they are of low value. Otherwise, why would a sane parent mistreat them?
Parents Can Be Irrational
Well, the reason people mistreat others is often due to irrational thoughts and beliefs and, sometimes, organic brain dysfunction. Even if the parent did in fact judge their child as unworthy of love, as a low-value human being, it is not an actual reflection of real value. It is a direct result of the parent’s distorted thoughts and resulting negative actions. Helping your loved one to see that their parent suffered from thinking problems may take some of the sting out of the loved one’s belief that their parent willfully and rationally decided to mistreat them.
A rational parent acts in a manner that will best assist their child in functioning in the real world; a manner that helps that child succeed in work, love and play. Any behavior that puts the future welfare of the child at risk is irrational, i.e. the result of distorted thoughts and subsequent irrational behaviors.
Letting your loved one know that their perceptions of mistreatment may in fact be accurate and supporting the idea that it would have been better had these things not happened goes a long way to salving that wound. But agreeing that someone is evil and worthless and worthy of hatred may not assist your loved one in moving forward. So, strive to be empathic without demeaning or awfulizing their deceased parent as a human being.
THIS WORLD IS A TERRIBLE PLACE TO LIVE IN:
Finally, your loved one may look at the death of their parent as proof that the world is an awful, terrible place to live. They may feel their parent’s life was cut short, or that the parent didn’t get a fair shake in life. Or that your loved one was shortchanged by the parent’s life and/or death.
It is true that life is often unfair and filled with difficulties. However, in our modern world, people often forget this fact and come to believe that life should in fact be easy. It was not long ago, however, that people’s lives were significantly harder, and the thought of hardship was not foreign to many.
Electricity, indoor plumbing, electronic communication, medical advances, transportation—all these areas have become incredibly less difficult in a very short period of human history. Before recent times, many people died young, had difficult occupations, unsanitary living conditions and often uncomfortable life situations. Yet the modern man-made advances have made life so much more comfortable that now ‘ease and comfort’ are assumed to be the way life SHOULD be—easy, convenient, no muss-no fuss. But these standards of living are quite recent and obfuscate the fact that in other respects life can in fact be challenging and difficult.
As a loved one, simply acknowledging that ‘yes, life is difficult and no, it’s not always easy’ can help to soothe the suffering of a loved one who has lost their parent. Life is both sweet and bitter. One cannot exist without the other.
Last but not least, your loved one may be secondarily shaming themselves for having the emotional reactions they have. People can shame themselves for:
Feeling too much
Not feeling enough
Feeling happy or relieved
Help your loved one by letting them know ‘there is no perfect or correct way’ to react to loss. Some people feel numb, some people feel highly emotional and yes, some feel a strange sense of relief—their parent may have been suffering or their parent may have been highly critical and demanding. Either way, non-judgmental support is what your loved one needs right now
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©2019 Ross Grossman, MA, LMFT
Affinity Therapy Services