If you lose someone you love, grief is a natural response. During this time, doing what feels right is important. You may need to cry, become angry, or isolate yourself from others. These are all acceptable ways of reacting to death. Each individual grieves in their own way and there is no right or wrong experience. However, there are some commonalities between how people usually grieve. Hopefully, this article can help you better understand the five different stages of grief and what they might look like if you have just lost a parent.
Five Stages of Grief
Most likely, you have heard about the five stages of grief before. But where does this concept come from? In 1969, Elizabeth Kübler-Ross – a Swiss-American psychiatrist – compiled her observations from working with terminally ill individuals and divided grief into five stages. There are other models for stages of grief, but Kübler-Ross’s system is the one that’s most commonly used.
The five stages of grief are denial, anger, bargaining, depression, and acceptance. Though it is important to note that not everyone will experience all five stages or in that specific order. Instead of trying to use the five stages as a strict guideline, you should understand them as a tool that can help you identify what you are feeling.
A very common response to a traumatic event is denial. It can be easier for people to deal with overwhelming emotions by pretending that whatever change they are experiencing is actually not happening. It’s a common defense mechanism and gives us time to gradually understand what has happened.
If an individual is dealing with a breakup, for example, they may tell themselves things like “She’s just upset, she’ll be fine tomorrow” or “They’ll call when they need me.”
When denial no longer works, emotions start to rise. Often this leads individuals to anger. Anger is a masking effect and it hides the other emotions that we might not want to put on display. Grieving people may be angry at others, show fury and rage or just become bitter and resentful. If a loved one has passed, those grieving their loss may say things like “If she took care of herself, this would not have happened!” This is a common reaction and is just a way of pushing other feelings away.
After anger has passed, people can often feel helpless and vulnerable. This is when people start making the “what if” statements, trying to regain control of the situation. Again, bargaining is a barrier we put up between ourselves and the real emotions of grief like sadness and confusion. Bargaining is a line of defense against the emotions of grief. People with a terminal illness may say to themselves things like: “If I had gone to the doctor earlier, I would not be in this situation.”
Unlike others before it, depression is often a more subdued stage of grief. Depression is difficult to define and it may manifest itself in different ways across different people. Some individuals can seem completely fine on the outside and some may appear actively depleted. People can feel heavy or confused. They might be asking questions like “why even try anymore” or “what’s the point of moving forward?” Whatever the form of depression may be, it is vital that you don’t get stuck here. A therapist is very helpful for those going through this stage.
The final stage of grief is acceptance. Acceptance is not always a happy part of the grieving process. Acceptance does not always mean moving past grief either. Typically it means understanding what has happened and how it will affect one’s life in the future.
Stages of Grief After Losing a Parent
Often, we can forget how deep a connection we have with our parents. If you are the one taking care of them, your connection with them can be even stronger. So, when you lose them, it’s devastating and the stages of grief will relate to your relationship with them. As an adult, your relationship with your parent continually changes, especially if you are caring for them and the end of life phase approaches. However, even understanding and anticipating the loss of a loved one does not shield us from grief.
Denial helps us to cope and lets us survive the initial shock of a parent dying. It’s a way of slowing down and only letting in as much as we can handle. Maybe you refuse to believe that your parent will never call you again or that you can’t drive up to your dad’s house for thanksgiving. These are difficult thoughts to fathom and at the beginning, you may be paralyzed by shock.
During this stage, you may also question why and how this happened. You wonder if it had to happen and if it could have been prevented. As you question more and more, a realization of the fact that your parent has passed slowly sets in.
And when that understanding fully hits you, a common – and often necessary – response is anger. It’s necessary because the more you let yourself vent and fume, the faster you will heal. Unfortunately, anger can be very isolating, especially if the person you are angry at is yourself. You may be wondering if their passing is your fault. You might become upset and ask why you didn’t take better care of them. You may be angry because you could do nothing to stop it or simply because something so bad happened to someone you loved. Your anger may be directed towards the parent that passed away, the healthcare system, or siblings and relatives. Along with anger, you may experience guilt, especially because no one’s relationship with their parent is a perfect one.
After a parent passes away, most people want life to return to the way it was. This is when they start bargaining. If you are going through this process, you might find yourself constantly thinking about “if only” scenarios. You might turn to God, asking to make it all a dream that you can wake up from. You might wonder what would have happened if you had gotten your parent better help or found out about their illness sooner. You might think about how you’ll see them again in heaven or maybe wonder if they are watching over you.
Among the different stages of grief, bargaining is all about the future, depression hits us when we move back to the present. Feelings of emptiness are common during this stage and they are not a sign of mental illness but instead an appropriate response to the loss of a parent. After having cared for them for possibly years the realization that this time your parent won’t get better or come back from the hospital is understandably depressing. If you understand that you’re experiencing depression or if someone else points it out to you, you may resist the idea at first. But it is important to allow yourself the sadness and explore deep feelings for grief. This – in a way – clears our path for acceptance.
Though no longer having a parent around is never going to be something you like or are ok with, acceptance lets us see reality for what it is. You will begin to accept that it may have been your loved one’s time to pass, that they were worn down and tired, ready for rest. Once you come to this understanding, you can begin to learn how to live in this new norm.
When you lose a parent, especially if you were the one taking care of them during the last days of their life, you may feel the pressure or outside expectation to not be overcome by grief. You and others may assume that you were ready for your parent’s passing and that you should handle the event in an appropriate adult manner. This way of thinking is not only unfair to you but also unhelpful in your journey to acceptance. The loss of your parent does not diminish because you are an adult or because you watched the parent as they came closer to death. On the contrary, being a caregiver to your parent before they die may make their eventual passing even more difficult for you.
Grief is a valid and difficult emotion regardless of your age or how much time you spent with the dying person. You may need several weeks or several years; either of those options being appropriate if it is the right option for you. Hopefully, this article has given you some helpful information about the different stages of grief. And most importantly, if you need help at any of the stages mentioned above, make sure to reach out to those around you. Whether it be from friends or professional counselors, help can be crucial in your journey to acceptance.
- Grieving in Your Own Way, Marie Curie, https://www.mariecurie.org.uk/help/support/bereaved-family-friends/dealing-grief/grieving-your-way
- What You Should Know about the Stages of Grief, Healthline, https://www.healthline.com/health/stages-of-grief#takeaway
- When a Parent Dies: Dealing with the Loss of Your Mother or Father, Dignity Memorial, https://www.dignitymemorial.com/support-friends-and-family/grief-library/when-a-parent-dies-dealing-with-the-loss-of-your-mother-or-father