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Dealing with the loss of a parent

Dealing with the loss of a parent

A few months after Cara Zizzo’s mother died, she returned to her usual habit. He went to work and chatted with friends. But the small memories sent him into a spiral of sadness. “I found a postcard he sent me at my desk and I started making a fuss,” says Zizzo, who lives in New York City. Zizzo, who was 32 at the time, was oppressed. “The hardest part is knowing that I’ll never be a mom,” she says.

Even as an adult, the death of a parent is devastating. “You’re losing someone who loves you unconditionally and gives you a sense of security and stability,” says Holly Schiff, PsyD, psychologist With the Jewish Family Services of Greenwich, Connecticut. If you have a more complicated relationship, you may have feelings of anger or remorse.

Mourning it is the personal loss of a parent. There is no “normal” path or chronology. Each deals in its 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. Pain is associated with sadness. But you will probably go through a lot of emotions. “When my father died, I was shocked,” says Jason Phillips, a therapist in Raleigh, NC. “Death wasn’t something we talked about in my family, so after a few days they went back to normal.” A few weeks later, when Phillips began processing his father’s death, he was overwhelmed with emotion.

You may go through the following stages of grief:

  • Denial. You may feel embarrassed or surprised. This is a way for your brain to deal with horrible news.
  • Anger. When you match the loss, your emotions can turn to anger. You can direct other people to a deceased parent or higher power.
  • Negotiation. You may feel guilty, and think “if only …” and “what if …” This turns off the reality of your loss.
  • Depression. As the loss sinks, you feel sad. You may cry and be sleep problems and eat.
  • Acceptance. You have accepted reality. While you’re still upset, you’re moving on with your life.


Most of the time, you won’t go through those stages in order, says Dr. Alexandra Emery, a psychologist at Grit City Psychology in Seattle. You can jump from one to the other or experience it more than once.

Let it bother you. The only cure is to let emotions be felt, Schiff says. Expulsion can form grief. That’s when you stop. You can’t move or rage forward. Schiff proposes to work out specific moments of grief. “When that time passes, make the effort to move forward and move on with your day,” he says.

For Phillips, he learned from his father’s death. When his mother died a few decades later, he knew he needed to correct his pain. She saw a counselor and kept a diary to work on her emotions.

Get the help you need. Make it your family, friends and loved ones. You can also find a mourning support group. “It’s helpful to talk to others who are going through the same thing,” Schiff says. If you are comfortable, tell your boss and close colleagues. “That way, they don’t expect your same version to appear in the office,” he says.


Take care of yourself. It’s easy to lose yourself. But making your health a priority helps you better manage sadness stress, God Phillips. Take enough time to get it sleep, eat well, and exercise regularly. Also do things that make you happy. “I like to work and travel,” he says. “Doing those two things after my mother died made a big difference.”

Ask for and accept help. Let others help, help with funeral preparations, bring food, or help with the kids. He lost his mother to Zizzo, whose friends refused him an offer to fly cross-country to spend time with him. “I didn’t want to bother,” he says. But, looking back, he realizes he needs to let them help. “They wanted to be for me,” he says.


Find ways to remember your parents. Do things that make you feel close to your parents, Emery suggests. You can make their favorite recipe, write letters and celebrate birthdays. These actions can help you cultivate emotions. “Every year on my mother’s birthday, my sister and I are always together to celebrate,” Zizzo says. It also has daily souvenirs. “I wear my mother’s jewelry,” she says. “He was an artist and I hung his artwork all over my apartment.”


Prepare to return emotions. In the first 6 months after losing you feel the most of your grief. It’s normal to have a hard time in the first year, Schiff says. Then you often accept the death of your parents and move on. But the pain can explode, especially on holidays and birthdays.

Consider getting professional help. A mental health a professional, such as a therapist or psychologist, can help you process your emotions. You can watch one at any time. But it’s important to talk to someone if your pain doesn’t improve over time or if it interferes with your daily life. For example, you can’t keep up with your work or family. A mental health professionals can provide you with the tools to manage your pain.

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