How to Help a Grieving Parent Who Lost Their Life Partner


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1. Take care of their basic physical needs

The days and weeks after the death of a loved one can feel like a whirlwind. During this time, your surviving parent likely has plenty of community support. Friends may drop off meals and flowers, the mail is inundated with cards, and family pours into town.

However, after a few weeks, the community support tends to dwindle, and your grieving parent may need you most.

“Your parent has been sharing household duties with a spouse and they had all their familiar routines, but now that’s gone,” says Paula Shaw, a life transition coach and author of Saying the Right Thing When You Don’t Know What to Say. “That’s a huge disruption in the surviving parent’s life.”

Depending on what their household role was before the loss, they may need help with basic household duties. “The first time she can’t fix the toilet, the first time he can’t cook — those are moments when people get emotionally upset,” says Kim Mooney, an end-of-life and grief educator, award-winning author, and founder of the organization Practically Dying in Boulder, Colorado.

The symptoms of grief can make daily chores, like cooking, cleaning, and going to the pharmacy almost impossible.

“Your parent may not have the capacity or desire to do what he or she did before,” Mooney says. Offering to cook, clean, or mow the lawn can lift a huge burden from your parent’s shoulders.

Your parent has been sharing household duties with a spouse and they had all their familiar routines, but now that’s gone. That’s a huge disruption in the surviving parent’s life.

Paula Shaw, life transition coach

2. Don’t expect them to make difficult decisions right away

Many surviving parents don’t have the emotional capacity to organize the funeral, take care of the family’s finances, or write an obituary. These tasks are often the responsibility of the adult children or other family members.

Health care

Surviving spouses may let their own health fall to the wayside.

“Bereavement and grieving have devastating effects on the immune system,” Shaw says.

Your parent may not have the emotional or mental capacity to schedule doctor’s appointments or take their medication. After the first few weeks, consider helping your parent schedule a doctor’s appointment.

Living arrangements

Many surviving parents will eventually downsize after the loss of a spouse. However, this is not a decision to push on your parent. Homes represent years of memories, aspirations, and new beginnings.

Many surviving spouses need time in their home before considering a move. Wait until your parent brings up the idea of moving before helping them find options. Whatever your parent needs, help them make it a reality.

If your parent is interested in moving into a senior living community, you can help them make an informed decision. Consider their needs, finances, and current location, and be sure to help them tour communities before choosing one.

3. Be patient

Grief is different for everyone. It may take a long time for your parent to cycle through the stages of grief.

According to Mooney, your parent’s need for support continues long after the funeral. “Support can’t be just for the first couple of weeks,” she says. “You have to let the process unfold.”

Your surviving parent may experience any of the symptoms of grief, and not all of these will be pleasant for you. Exercise a higher level of patience as you walk with your parent after a loss, and be prepared to continue offering support for at least a year afterward.

Support can’t be just for the first couple of weeks.

Kim Mooney, certified thanatologist

4. Be present

After Monson’s husband died from a heart attack, her children’s regular communication was a lifeline. “All of our children called frequently, wanting to know how I was,” Monson says.

In the months and years that follow a loss, do your best to stay present. Often, the most difficult time for a surviving spouse are the months after, when other people have moved on but they haven’t.

“Isolation is the enemy of healing from grief,” Shaw says. “Take them to lunch. Try to keep them engaged in companionship and life. Be present to their condition or needs.”

5. Acknowledge meaningful dates

Put these dates on your calendar and send a card or call your loved one each year:

  • Wedding anniversaries
  • Birthdays
  • Death anniversaries
  • Holidays

This thoughtful gesture lets your parent know that you still support them after a loss, even if it’s been years since the death.

Holidays can be especially challenging for surviving spouses and will likely remain a challenge for the rest of their lives. If you don’t do this already, prioritize being with your surviving parent for holidays or special occasions.

Isolation is the enemy of healing from grief.

Paula Shaw, life transition coach

Symptoms of grief to look for

Like many other survivors, Monson said she was in a daze when her husband of 54 years died in 2018, leaving her unable to think clearly or do what was necessary at the time. Her book, Finding Peace in Times of Tragedy, chronicles her healing experience after her own loss.

It’s normal for adult children to feel taken aback by a sudden change in personality or behavior after their parent loses a spouse. Grief can appear differently depending on the person. Knowing what’s in the realm of normal can help you determine if your parent needs extra help, or if they’re simply experiencing the stages of grief.

According to the American Psychological Association, grief often includes “physiological distress, separation anxiety, confusion, yearning, obsessive dwelling on the past, and apprehension about the future.”[

Most symptoms of grief fall into these four categories:

  • Physical discomfort
  • Trouble sleeping
  • Short-term memory loss
  • Difficult emotions

Physical discomfort

Some common physiological symptoms of grief include:

  • Nausea
  • Gastrointestinal problems
  • Headaches
  • Muscle weakness
  • Dizziness
  • Fatigue

Your parent could report even more alarming symptoms, though, such as chest tightness or shortness of breath. Take these reports seriously, and make sure your loved one gets to their doctor.

Some people who experience intense stress from grief may experience takotsubo cardiomyopathy, also known as “broken heart syndrome.” This means some people may experience the symptoms of a heart attack when they’re not having one. Physical symptoms of grief often last through those intense first few months, and most are resolved within a year of the event.

Trouble sleeping

Losing sleep goes hand-in-hand with lethargy during the day and can make other symptoms of grief worse. If sleep continues to be a problem for your loved one, you may want to help them find a sleep therapist.

Lack of sleep can hinder their ability to recover from illnesses, and it’s a risk factor for depression. Seniors with dementia are more likely to experience sleep problems, especially after a loss.

Short-term memory loss

Some call short-term memory loss the “fog of grief,” and it’s very common. A parent may forget that you were going to get lunch on a certain day or find it impossible to concentrate on their favorite book series. Confusion and short-term memory loss will likely go away after a few months.

Difficult emotions

Sadness, guilt, denial, frustration, and anxiety are all natural responses to a difficult loss. Your parent may not know how to release these emotions in a healthy way. Or they might just not know where to put them.

Don’t be overly surprised if you and other close relatives become the target of some of these negative emotions or angry outbursts. But do your best to set some boundaries to protect your own mental health.

Adult children experience loss differently than their parents

According to Shaw, adult children’s grief is generally marked by sorting through memories of the deceased parent and worrying about changes to come, while the surviving parent faces daily reminders of their loss. Adult children who understand how to help their surviving parent are more prepared to process their own loss.

Delayed grief, in which a person doesn’t experience the symptoms of grief for months or even years after a loss, can especially affect adult children caring for their grieving parent.

The busyness of arranging the funeral, making sure Mom or Dad’s needs are met, and coordinating finances, legal issues, and more, can distract adult children from their own grief, making it more likely that they’ll experience delayed symptoms.

This article originally appeared on APlaceForMom and was syndicated by MediaFeed.

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