Ask Therapist Kasia: How long does it take to get over the death of a parent?

While it is almost inevitable that a child will grieve the loss of a parent in their lifetime, it does not make the process any easier. Many people struggle with understanding grief, and in particular, they wonder how long it will weigh on them.

There is no set period for how long grieving a parent lasts. Everyone is different, and many factors can affect the duration of the grieving process. Things such as age, how it happened, and family dynamics can play a part in this timeline.

This may not seem like a helpful answer when abridged, but this article aims to help the reader understand the many facets involved in grieving the death of a parent in the hopes that it will allow them to grieve in a healthy way. Doing so will shorten the amount of time spent grieving, but, more importantly, it will allow the reader to gain a new perspective on what they are going through.

This article will also explain how friends and family members can support grieving individuals during this challenging time in their life.

Grieving a Parent Takes Time

The following sections will highlight important personal factors that can affect the amount of time it takes to grieve the loss of a parent.

Manner of Death

Sudden or violent deaths can lengthen the duration of the anger and depression stages of grief, according to Dr. Nikole Benders-Hadi. These stages will be discussed at length in the section that discusses the Five Stages of Grief.

These types of deaths increase the chances of grief-related disorders in grieving children because they result in frustration over unresolved feelings for the deceased parent, especially if the parent-child relationship was tumultuous or abusive.

Long-term suffering is painful for survivors, but it often gives them more time to say goodbye while the parent is still alive, allowing room for reconciliation.

Acceptance of the parent’s inevitable death may also allow for easier transitions between the Five Stages once the parent passes on.

Age and Marital Status of The Surviving Child

A study conducted in 2015 suggested that young adults may grieve more intensely and for a longer period of time than middle-aged adults. Along a similar vein, the study concluded that single participants were more severely impacted by grief than married people, which overlapped with the majority of younger participants being single and the majority of older participants being married.

While it is probably true that the presence or absence of a supportive spouse affects how grieving child experiences their emotions, it is also important to note that different age groups have different mindsets regarding death and loss.

Young adults generally do not expect to lose their parents at a young age, regardless of the parent’s cause of death. They usually expect to lose their parents later in life. On the other hand, Middle-aged children have watched their parent’s age, making them more likely to notice their parent’s steady health decline (a much slower process than dealing with a terminal disease). 

Family Dynamics

According to clinical psychologist Dr. Carla Marie Manly, people tend to have a harder time grieving over the loss of a mother because mothers are often primary caretakers, forming a close and nurturing bond with their children from birth.

While this statement would certainly make sense for older generations of grievers, it fails to acknowledge the diversity of family dynamics present today and how they may impact grief in younger generations.

For example, women are beginning to outnumber men in America’s workforce, and the prevalence of working women is increasing steadily in many Western countries. This trend implies an increasing number of households that are dual-income and households in which the mother is the primary breadwinner. These factors will affect which parent is the primary caregiver and, in turn, they can impact how someone grieves over the loss of a mother or father.

Children raised in abusive households may grieve similarly to children who lost their parents to unexpected deaths, harboring unreconciled emotions due to the inability to achieve closure from the parent. Conversely, for some children, the death of an abusive parent might be the closure they needed. Both reactions are perfectly normal.

For more information about grieving over an abusive parent, click here.

The Five Stages of Grief and How to Cope with Them

Now that you have been made aware of the personal factors that affect grief duration, it is crucial that you understand the Five Stages of Grief and how you will react to them as you process your emotions.

While people follow these stages, they vary in length and sometimes do not follow this exact order, or people may even go back through them. But understanding the various stages will help you know where someone is in the timeline of grieving a parent.

Denial

The shock of losing a parent can be too much for your brain to handle. In response, you will deny that the death occurred in the first place. This is a natural defense mechanism against devastating news. You will have to accept that the parent is dead to move on from this stage.

Anger

After the shock sets in and the reality of the situation hits, you may begin to feel angry. At yourself. At the loved one who left you. At the world. Life moves on, but you feel stuck at the moment. This anger arises from feelings of isolation and helplessness that remain in the subconscious mind.

Allow yourself to feel angry. Rip up pieces of paper or scribble on them aggressively with a sharpie. Some people find catharsis in burning and smashing things. Before attempting a more destructive method of releasing anger, it is important to find a safe environment to wear protective equipment and to find a safe environment.   

Bargaining

This is the stage of “what-ifs.” You may dwell on how you could have been a better person for them in life.

If your parent’s death was situational, you might fixate on actions you could have taken or activities you could have done differently that may have affected the outcome. I.e., “If I had gone to buy the groceries instead of them, they might not have died in a car accident.”

This way of thinking is normal, but it is best not to dwell in it for too long. When you find yourself thinking about the “what-ifs,” remind yourself that there is no way to reverse time and that the results might have been the same regardless of what you could have done differently. You are not responsible for your parent’s death.

Depression

 The feelings of isolation and helplessness present in the anger stage move to the conscious mind, and you realize that “what-ifs” cannot fix the situation. Even if you release yourself from blame, you are deeply saddened by the absence of your parent.

You may become despondent and lose interest in activities that you regularly enjoy. You may lose your appetite and feel the desire to isolate yourself from friends and family physically.

Depending on your personality, having time alone can be either helpful or harmful to your mood. Some people will use that time to meditate on the loss and focus on finding ways to cope. For others, being alone with thoughts can lead to dark places.

If your depression worsens after spending an extended period of time by yourself, reach out to loved ones and be sure to spend some time away from home. Though outings may seem like temporary distractions, they will give your brain time to process grief in sizable chunks instead of experiencing burnout from constant emotional exposure.

Acceptance

This is the final stage of grief. After enduring the other four stages, you have accepted your loss, and you can move forward with your life. You may still feel sad, but your emotions no longer impede your ability to function in everyday life.

Do not feel pressured to accept your parent’s death. Everyone has their own time frame for grieving, and no one else can tell you when you are ready to accept the loss but yourself.

It is important to note that the three stages after denial do not often progress in a linear fashion. Anger, bargaining, and depression are heavily intertwined, and it is perfectly normal to feel depressed for one day and then angry the next. These mood swings are perfectly normal and do not in any way imply that your grief is regressing.

Consequences of Unresolved Grief

While you will deal with grief on your own time, it is important to make frequent strides toward expressing your feelings so that they do not linger.

Here are some common psychological consequences of unresolved grief:

  1. Unresolved anger results from constant suppression and will force you to remain in the anger stage longer than you would if you were venting your frustration in healthy and productive ways. You may feel a heightened sense of aggression and lash out unpredictably at others, even if you are not an aggressive person.
  1. Becoming stuck in the bargaining stage of grief places a lot of needless blame on yourself and prevents you from perceiving the pointlessness of fixating on hypotheticals that may or may not have affected parental death. This will prevent you from being able to move toward acceptance.
  1. Unresolved grief is also heavily associated with declining mental health and increased chances of developing long-term mental illnesses, especially anxiety and depression.

Have you ever felt “butterflies” in your stomach when you felt nervous or had a “gut feeling” when you suspected something was wrong? Though we were taught as children that the mind and the body are separate entities, the truth is that the brain activity that is responsible for thought processes often overlaps with brain activity that controls other vital bodily functions.

Cardiac events, hypertension, immune disorders, and even cancer have been linked with unresolved emotional trauma. Though it is not clear exactly how emotional imbalance from grief affects the rest of the body, it is theorized that excessive exposure to stress hormones can cause mutations in the cellular genetic code.

Healthy Ways to Cope with Grieving Over a Parent

The consequences of prolonged grief can seem scary, but keep in mind that there are plenty of healthy ways to cope with loss, regardless of your current stage of grief.

  1. While you are grieving, you will have a limited capacity for feeling emotion. In other words, you will only have a certain amount of emotional energy to expend each day before burning out.
  • With this in mind, surrounding yourself with supportive family members and friends is a must. Though you may not want to admit it, you are emotionally vulnerable right now, and it is easy to get lost in a sea of despair if you do not allow loved ones to ground you.
  • Distance yourself from people who are unsympathetic or demanding. These “energy vampires” will drain your emotional capacity quickly and leave you feeling worse.
  1. Professional guidance from a therapist or counselor is incredibly helpful in most cases, especially during the early stages of grief. This is not a necessity, but I would highly recommend it.
  1. Hotlines are also available if therapy is not an option. Click here for a crisis hotline directory.
  1. Allowing yourself to express your emotions is one of the most important ways to let yourself heal. Do not hold them off for later or wall them up because they are unpleasant or because they are manifesting at inconvenient times, as this may prevent long-term problems that result from accumulation of intense, negative emotions.

How To Tell Where You Are in the Grieving Process

If you are having trouble untangling your grief-related emotions, try this mental exercise. It is something that I developed shortly after losing my father, and it has proven to be a big help when I am trying to identify the stage of grief that I am experiencing.

  • Close your eyes and imagine that your parent has suddenly returned home after death. What are the emotions that you feel towards them? Do you want to hug them? Yell at them? Ignore them?
  • Whatever your personal reaction may be, try to understand the feelings behind it. If you want to yell at your parents for leaving you, your strongest emotion is anger. If you would rather hug them, you are most likely in the depression phase. If you want to apologize for treating them a certain way in life or for failing to do something differently, you are currently in the bargaining stage.
  • You may feel a mixture of all three, and that is okay. Remember, these feelings are often intertwined, but now you can put a name to them and work on coping mechanisms to help you manage them more concretely.

How to Support a Loved One Who Has Lost a Parent

When faced with someone grieving over a parent, it is difficult to act appropriately unless you have had a similar personal experience. Here are some guidelines for helping your loved one who is grieving for their parent:

  1. Give your loved one space.
    1. It is natural for friends and family members to want to check in on their loved ones who are grieving and is, in fact, encouraged.
  • Be sure to gauge how often your grieving friend, family member, or spouse would like to interact with you. They will be more willing or less willing to do so depending on where they are in the grieving process.
  • Trying to push them to tell you how they are feeling or checking up on them excessively will cause them to either isolate themselves from you or lash out at you.
  1. Be a good listener.
    1. Sometimes the best support you can give is by listening, not by offering advice or trying to relate to them. This is a general rule of thumb for any good relationship: Listen first, discuss later.
    1. Only give advice if your loved one is receptive to it. It is okay to ask what they need from you if you are not sure.
  • Trying to relate to them may seem like an act of sympathy from your perspective, but your loved one might feel as though you are trivializing what they are going through by focusing the conversation on yourself.
  •  It is only appropriate to bring up what you have endured if you can use your experiences to answer their questions or to give good advice when it is requested.
  1. Take your loved one on outings.
    1. When someone is grieving a parent, their home can become a place of despair. This is especially true if the person was still living with the parent at the time of death. A change of scenery is often welcomed.
  • Take your loved one on outings that they usually enjoy. They may not be as enthusiastic as they usually are, but they are thankful for the time they spend with you, whether they tell you or not.
  • It is important that your loved one agrees to leave the house on their own accord. Do not pressure them to go or pester them about it.
  1. Everyone grieves differently.
    1. This concept has been repeated several times throughout this article, but it is important to remember.
  • The way that your loved one perceives grief may be different from the way you grieve. It may be different from the grieving processes of those around you. And that is okay. You do not have all the answers for them, nor are you expected to.

Grieving a Parent is a Hard Task

Grieving a parent takes time, grace, and lots of support from friends and family. By understanding a bit more about the grieving process, you are better equipped to walk yourself or someone else through it when the time comes.

Written by Kasia Ciszewski, LPC on

Kasia is a licensed professional counselor servicing the Charleston area. She helps individuals heal, better understand their emotions, energize & become more aware of their inner strength. She specializes in helping teens, adults and seniors and has been able to regularly achieve impressive results for her clients throughout South Carolina. Instagram - Facebook - Pinterest - Twitter - Linkedin

20 thoughts on “Ask Therapist Kasia: How long does it take to get over the death of a parent?”

  1. Thank you for writing this. My daddy died a few weeks ago and it has been terrible. Worst heart break in the world. I am 31 and am supposed to get married in 6 months, but I just don’t think I can walk down the aisle without him. He was my best friend. He fought cancer for 21 years. It kept coming back and the last 3 years it came back with a vengeance. I also took care of him. I did his dialysis at home and learned how to be his home nurse. I told him everything to the point where sometimes he would have to tell me not to tell him because it was TMI. I am not sure how to go on in this life without him. My mother abandoned my brother and I when I was 2 months old and he raised us by himself. I don’t feel whole anymore. I feel so abandoned and isolated. I have nobody who truly understands me like he did. I hurt because when I have kids they will miss out on the best grandpa in the world. He gave up his life to take care of us. And worked hard every single day to support us even when he had cancer at his young age of 44. He died at 65. I know I need to be grateful but I’m not. I miss him so much and I wonder why he had to leave me. Why can’t I be one of the lucky people who still have their 80 year old dad alive. I get mean at other people who say they understand. I feel like nobody will understand. This lady lost her dad at 87 years old. She is lucky to have had him that long. I know I shouldn’t be like this. I’m so lost and confused right now. And hurt so much. He died at home with me. When he died a blinding beam of light came into the room. It was so crazy that I took a picture of it. The picture looks like an angel. This is the only thing that helps me. All I care about is that he is okay and that one day I will see him again. He was a breaker of chains for my family. He was the only one who stopped doing drugs for his kids and raised us to be successful. I’m so sorry for anyone that has lost a loved one especially at a young age. I love my daddy so much. And I will never forget how great of a man he was.

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    • I just came across this and felt so compelled to respond. My Dad just passed away on October 1st and the pain is excruciating. He was my best friend and I feel so empty without him. He truly was the most amazing person. He spent 16 months in intense pain from cancer. I did everything I could to slow it down. I feel lost.

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    • I lost my adored mom 7 years ago now my dad 31 years ago. I am sooo devastated at losing my mother, it feels like yesterday! My mom died in the room with me I took care of her. I was 53 then I am now 60. I cry a lot. I feel sooo devastated the profoundness, magnitude is unimaginable. I go to the cemetery 🪦 once a month. I promised my mom I would never leave her alone. I am sooo sad 😭 holidays are horrible events and anniversaries.

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      • Hello Laura,
        I feel your pain, and loss. I want to encourage you to take time and smile at the moments your Mom spent teaching you to cook, drive, see, fix things, learn things. Look in the mirror or take a picture and admire the features in your face that look like your Mom. Your smile, gestures, mannerisms may be like your mom’s which means she lives on in you and your children, if any.

        May God bless you. You will always miss her, just know that it’s normal to miss her. Not only were you her daughter, but you were caretaker.

        Find a new you to develop after the death of your mom. You are not the same as before, you can never be, so embrace a new you and do things that you’ve always wanted to do in life. Live, that would make your Mom happy.

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      • I agree with you Laura…my mom was my person with most things in my life! It is an unimaginable loss….just get tired of feeling sad!

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    • I’m so sorry you are going through this at your young age…try to be kind to yourself & keep your Father right there in your heart…he is with you & wants you to “in time” live a good life…keep memories right in mind & heart also!! Love never ends!!!

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    • Krystal, I lost my father too three months before I got married. I was 32 then, my dad was 69. It is and will be painful. Two years after his death, I still cry like it was just yesterday that he died. I would spend the whole day crying and my eyes would hurt.

      To be honest, I don’t think I’ll ever get over the death of my father, whom I was really close to and had very happy memories with. We just have to move forward with it.

      I’m glad that you’re already married. Having a caring and supportive husband will get you through the tough times when you remember memories of your father. It is and will be tough. What got me through though is I write about him in my journal, so that my memories with him are recorded on paper. And when I read through it, instead of feeling sad, I try to feel grateful because I was able to build that memory with him.

      I don’t think we can ever get over our father’s demise. But we can try, little by little, that instead of being sad and angry at their early departure, we can be grateful that they were our fathers and we spent our lives with them to the fullest. Those memories will be unique only to us, and we’re very fortunate to have that.

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  2. I lost my dad on November 15th and since that day I have not been myself, the guilt of knowing he was going to die and not telling him is eating me up inside. I never got to tell him how much I love him cos he raised me to show no emotions, but I love my dad very much, I really don’t know to cope I feel lost. What can I do please help.

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    • Esther,

      I don’t know you or your dad, but I do know he knew you loved him, and will always love him, very much. Be at peace–he knew. You can still tell him, too–tell him every day–I believe he’ll hear you. I lost my dad just two weeks ago–it’s a loss like no other. Sending you all my love and prayers.

      Beth

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    • Oh, I’m so sorry I lost my dad on November 19th and it hurts like heck so I know your pain very well. For me, I ask God to give to me strength and I just think of the happy moments and that he would want me to keep going. I don’t know if you have siblings but if so lean on them they know you’re a pain and it helps. I’m sure you’re dad would want the same for you to carry on and hold on to all the good memories. I hope that helps.

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  3. I lost my dad on the 28th of December. I’m 31 and feel pretty cheated. He was scared his grandson (my son) will forget him, he is three. Breaks my heart that he won’t get to see his 3 grandkids grow up. My dad battled cancer for 14 months. We knew his cancer was terminal but had an appointment in December for a new treatment plan to extend his life by 8-14 months, that never happened. We were fortunate he died at home where he wanted. I won’t give all the final details but my father took his last breaths in my arms, the day before he told my mother and me that he loved us, and he was sorry for being tired of fighting, I never said it was okay but I did tell him I loved him too(barely trying to not cry), I was scared to cry or show emotion because I didn’t want to scare him more but he knew, I think he was ready.

    My dad was my best friend, I know he was proud of me but yet I feel I let him down on the final day of his life. I was busy with my mom trying to make the arrangements to ensure he doesn’t go to a hospital as he made it clear he wanted to be at home but, he was also scared to be left alone and in the moment of being busy I left my dad alone in the living room as he sat on the couch…scared. we didn’t think it would be the final day we actually were planning for his home care to be a week or more but it was 16 hours.

    It’s only been 3 weeks, some days it feels like forever ago since I last spoke to him, some days it feels like just yesterday. Hell, this morning I still felt like I could have called him. I don’t know if it gets better with age but losing my dad at 31 feels horrible, my kids are so young and I still need so much fatherly advice that I’ll never get, I’ll never get to send him pictures or videos of the kids.

    My wife is worried as I haven’t been the same since, I’m almost scared to move forward because it feels like I’m distancing myself from my dad. I am around energy suckers at work as I’m expected to be okay already…it’s only been 3 weeks

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    • I understand that feeling of not wanting to let go of any of your grief as it feels you are further away from your dad, everyone else moves on, but you don’t want to yet, but it makes you feel you can’t keep talking about him because others expect you to be feeling better. You end up keeping feelings to yourself. Feeling better feels like a betrayal of your dad but it really isn’t, feeling better is still part of grieving, it gets less painful until what remains is love.

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  4. I lost my dad almost 12 years ago to cancer. I was only 19 back then and the grief is still there even after more than a decade. My dad was diagnosed with stage 4 lung cancer and died after only 5 months. I still dream of my dad once in a while and in all my dreams, my dad was still alive and I had talked to him like he never died. But recently, my dad appeared in my dream again and I knew he’s dead. I don’t know what caused this change but I guess probably I no longer feel guilty that my dad was gone too soon and I know that he is in a better place now.

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  5. My dad died unexpectedly from a heart attack 10 months ago. He was 89 and had a wonderfully full life as a minister. He didn’t suffer, didn’t have a prolonged illness, yet the pain of losing him just doesn’t seem to lift. He believed completely that he would go to heaven when he died but I am struggling to live up to his faith, I’m so worried that his belief came to nothing. I’m so scared he has just gone, that he is no more. I look for signs from him that he still exists somehow but I see nothing and feel only pain.
    I have a wonderful life, a gorgeous grandson, everything to be happy and proud of and I know dad would want me to live life to the full, but behind everything is this profound sadness that he’s not here to enjoy all this with me.

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  6. I lost my Dad the week before Christmas last year. His heart gave out 2 days after a 9 hour operation. My rational self can accept that his quality of life as a new widower was poor but I feel so dead inside as if I have nothing left to give. I’ve planned the scattering of his ashes later this month on what would have been his birthday and my husband is expecting me to snap out of it after then. If I don’t he thinks I need to get help. I am a full-time nurse and I am trying to get my life back on track doing all the things I used to do and I am enjoying them up to a point. But I’m not sure I can magically turn back to the old me like flicking a switch, in 2 weeks time. I was so close to my Dad I’m not sure I’m ever going to get over his loss.

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  7. Hello all,

    Thank you for these pieces of advice.

    I lost my mom 3 weeks ago and since that day I am going crazy. She was everything to me. I have never loved someone so much. I miss her a lot, I can’t accept she’s gone so quickly and that I don’t know where she went. She died of a heart attack in less than one hour. She was well and happy, we went to the mountains the weekend before her death and everything was fine. I don’t know what to do anymore, my heart is broken, I’m devastated and don’t know how to live anymore. All I think about is why did this have to happen, why her and where is she now?! It’s killing me.

    I can’t even see her in my dreams…

    Reply
    • I’m so sorry same. My Dad was fine. In July went to sleep didn’t wake up. I’ll pray for you and feel your pain. He was my best friend. Talked to him all day every day

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  8. Hello,

    My Dad was my best friend. I talked to him constantly throughout the day, EVERY day. My Dad was hardworking, healthy, and did not smoke or drink. He just went to sleep and didn’t wake up 5 months ago. It was just us in terms of the immediate family. I’m 37. I’m still in shock. I’m devastated. 5 months later. It’s terrible.

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    • I can imagine how hard it must be for you, as I lost my mother 3 weeks ago and she was also my best friend. It is definitely the hardest period of my life.
      If it can be some consolation to you, even though it is a terrible loss, at least your father passed with, in my opinion, the best possible death-to fall asleep and not wake up. We can’t unfortunately choose how we die, but if we could, that is exactly how I would like to go.
      My mother was not that “fortunate”. She was diagnosed with terminal lung cancer and in her last month she suffered terribly. Actually it was the last two months, once she started with chemotherapy. In the end, she was only a shadow of herself, emaciated, intoxicated from the chemotherapy, half conscious from the brain metastases, vomiting and having seizures at the end. It was horrible to watch her suffer like that. My only comfort in this nightmare was, that at least she didn’t have any cancer pain. I have read from others’ experiences that this can also be horrible.

      Reply
  9. My mother died on 8 June 2021 and it was from a heart attack she was never sick never had any heart pain, we had a long chat I used to talk for hours she was my best friend, and the next day my dad called that morning my life change he said my mother doesn’t want to wake up, I am at a depression stage where I wanted to give up everything I know I can’t I have 2 kids age 11 and 13 I struggle to move on with the normal routine that I am used to I avoid everything that can make me cry or angry it is like a switch light that just went off, I understand that it was quick everyone around me expects to move on the family don’t talk about her we avoid it each one handles it on their own way, I push everyone away that says they understand but not been through same pain experiences, it feels like my whole world is at a standstill and I just can’t move forward

    Reply

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