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 about how long it will be weighing on them.

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

This may not seem like a helpful answer when abridged, but the aim of this article is to help the reader understand the many facets that are 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 that 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-ages adults. Along a similar vein, the study concluded that participants who were single were more severely impacted by grief than those who were married, 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 a grieving child experiences their emotions, it is also important to note that different age groups have different mindsets when it comes to 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. Middle-aged children, on the other hand, have watched their parents 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 seem to make sense for older generations of grievers, it fails to acknowledge the diversity of family dynamics that is 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 that there is 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 who were 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 backwards 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 simply 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 in 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 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 the death of your parent was situational, you might fixate on actions that 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 may 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 that are 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 physically isolate yourself from friends and family.

Depending on your personality, having time alone can prove to 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 are able to 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 that 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 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 who is 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 will be better equipped to walk yourself or someone else through it when the time comes.

About Kasia Ciszewski LPC

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.
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