Going through grief is a heart-wrenching experience and, as such, no one wants to see anyone grieve — let alone a parent, someone who is supposed to seem so stable. We turn to our parents for advice, for support, for life guidance but, when a parent is grieving, suddenly, the tables turn — and we're the ones to offer them advice, support and guidance.
It's not uncommon for parents to go through grief. After all, more than 65 million people, which make up 29 percent of the U.S. population, spend an average of 20 hours per week providing care for a chronically ill, disabled or elderly family member or friend, according to the National Alliance for Caregiving. Eventually, those chronically ill and elderly family members pass, and your parent who had dedicated the last few months or even years of their life to this family member will probably go through a period of grief. This is especially true if their lives have surrounded this other person they're grieving for so long, as their new life without that person is going to feel a lot different for them.
That all said, grief is a necessary process — and some would even argue that it's a beautiful one.
"Grief is an integral part of the human experience," according to Better Help. "Some say that, if we never know the depths of grief, we can never fully appreciate moments of joy, beauty and peacefulness. Yet, grief is a difficult thing to go through."
The first step on the path to peace is to understand, truly, what grief even really means. And, once you understand this, as well, you can help you your grieving parent.
"Grief, first of all, is a natural process; it isn't a disorder or an illness," according to Better Help. "You may be grieving about anything you've lost, whether it's a loved one or a job. Grief is an emotional reaction to change. It may entail many different feelings or changes in behavior. You may grieve a loss that has happened or one that you know is coming, such as when a loved one is terminally ill."
It's also important to note that there are, indeed, different types of grief. Your parent might be suffering from either acute grief or complicated grief.
"Acute grief is the grief you typically feel immediately after a loss or the death of a loved one," according to Better Help. "To understand grief, define it and learn to accept our new situation is a challenging task. Grief has been described as a psychological syndrome that includes intense physical, emotional and behavioral symptoms. Acute grief either passes or becomes complicated grief."
Meanwhile, complicated grief doesn't necessarily just eventually pass with some time.
"Complicated grief is a syndrome that happens when your ability to move through the grieving process is prolonged by maladaptive behaviors, obsessive thoughts and uncontrollable feelings," according to Better Help. "Most often, people who have complicated grief have had a very close and rewarding relationship with the one they lost."
So how do you help a grieving parent, whether they're dealing with acute or complicated grief?
There are certainly things you can do to help, but the things you shouldn't do or say are just as important.
Your grieving parent is going to need someone to talk to — or, rather, talk at. While they may ask for your advice, opinion, thoughts, etc., the most important thing that you do is practice active listening. Just sit, truly hear the words they're speaking, and don't cut them off. Just let them talk to you about what they're feeling because, often, talking our thoughts out loud helps us to unpack our mental state and move through it.
When someone is grieving, like your parent, they're probably going to have a more difficult time doing day-to-day tasks, like cooking for themselves. It's not uncommon for people to slump into unhealthy eating habits during the grief process not only because they're turning to comfort foods, but also because they just don't have the time or energy to be cooking healthy meals. Without asking, just do your parent a favor and cook up some breakfasts, lunches and/or dinners and bring them over. Make sure they're reheatable so that they'll last if your parent isn't necessarily feeling hungry right away.
If your parent wants to go speak with a professional to help them get through this grief, offer to drive them there or even to go sit with them in therapy. They may say no and say that they'd prefer to go alone. But they also may want you there for a comforting, familiar face who understands what you're going through — and they may just be too afraid or feel to guilty to ask because they don't want to burden you. By offering, you're letting them know that you're there if they want you to be — and that you support their decision to get professional help.
Help your parent practice some self-care activities that you know they love. Of course, it may be more difficult than usual to get them out of the house and doing activities given how low they may be feeling. But if you know that your parent used to love yoga, for example, schedule a yoga class for the two of you to attend together. Sometimes, they may just need you to make the first moves.
It'll probably be hard for your grieving parent to keep up with their own lives while they're going through such hard times, especially if they're also working. Lend a helping hand around the house by picking up the vacuum, doing the dishes, running a load of laundry, cooking some meals, babysitting the kids, etc. And do all of this without asking "What can I do to help?" They may feel guilty asking you for help, and the last thing you want to do is make your grieving parent feel like a burden.
Don't tell your parent to "be strong." This essentially suggests that they need to suck it up and get through it. Instead, talk with them about how valid and natural their symptoms of grief are. They might be feeling exhausted or physically ill. They might be losing their hair or gaining weight. They might be feeling sleepless at night or sleeping all the time. Remind them that what they're going through is a normal process, and they're allowed to feel exactly what they're feeling — all the while helping to keep them afloat and moving forward.
If you're religious and your grieving parent is not, don't start sharing all of your religious beliefs. Just because it'd make you feel better doesn't mean that it's going to make them feel better. Of course, you can ask them if they want to go with you to church or mosque or temple or something else, and if they want to give it a try, that's great. But pushing your faith on someone who doesn't want to indulge is going to make the process even harder for them.
The reality is that the situation sucks. And, while finding the silver lining can be helpful, you don't need to look for the lesson right away. That'll come in time — after the grief. Trying to put a positive spin on the situation might make them feel like their sad feelings aren't valid, and you certainly don't want to make them feel that way.
Whatever you do, don't tell them how exhausted, sick or drained they look. Of course they look that way — they're grieving. You can, instead, go back and visit number four and help them get into a self-care routine to get back on a healthy track.
Don't give your grieving parent a timeframe for the grief process. Don't bring up any mathematic equation for how long they're supposed to grieve and when they really should start getting over it. People are allowed to grieve for as long as they need to grieve and, for some, that could take years or even a lifetime. If you're concerned that your parent is not getting any better, go back to the "dos" on this list and seek professional help.
AnnaMarie Houlis is a feminist, a freelance journalist and an adventure aficionado with an affinity for impulsive solo travel. She spends her days writing about women’s empowerment from around the world. You can follow her work on her blog, HerReport.org, and follow her journeys on Instagram @her_report, Twitter @herreportand Facebook.