The sandwich generation—caretakers of our aging parents and our own growing families—knows this grief all too well. While the pain and sadness of losing a parent or other close loved one is a rite of passage we all go through, knowing that is cold comfort when you’re in the middle of it. The emotions connected to grief and loss can be overwhelming and truly debilitating. Let’s take a closer look at what’s considered normal grieving, and when seeking extra help is a good idea. In addition, I’ll offer some tips for coping and suggestions for keeping it together at home and work while you heal.
Normal Grief Reactions: They Might Not Seem So Normal!
Our relationships with our parents are complicated. For many people, even as we may be their caretakers, we are still coming to terms with our relationships with our parents and perhaps working through childhood wounds—large and small. Families that have endured and survived traumas, abuse, substance abuse, or illness can harbor incredibly challenging emotions, running the gamut from devotion to rage to pity. When a parent dies, the adult child is left holding the bag, so to speak—all the emotions now surface in a chaotic jumble and it can be overwhelming to try to sort it all out. Nearly any emotion is normal at first—including numbness or feeling nothing. Anger, relief, fear, sadness, confusion, and feeling empty are all normal in the beginning. Elisabeth Kubler-Ross’s five stages of grief are well known: anger, denial, bargaining, depression, and acceptance. While these may be experienced in the order listed, you might also feel all of them in a single day, as your mood changes or you get triggered by memories. As a therapist, I completed several post-graduate advanced trainings in grief and loss. I was struck by the energy at these trainings—the other therapists drawn to this specialty were more “present” and somehow more creative than other therapists I had encountered. The message I heard throughout these trainings was “don’t judge.” Everyone grieves differently. There isn’t a technique to apply or a correct approach to take—not for the therapist and not for the client. The work with a grieving person was all about being completely and utterly present to their pain and walking with them through the maze of healing—not leading, and not “helping” but witnessing and supporting. It sounds like I’m saying anything and everything is normal, and in a way that is correct – up to a point. Normal or not, there are a few lines in the sand that if crossed mean that it is time for professional help:
- Suicidal thoughts — Depending upon the circumstances surrounding the death, suicidal thoughts might be unavoidable, especially if your relationship has been particularly complicated or you feel somehow responsible for the death. Brief, fleeting thoughts of wanting to be with your parent are very different from planning to harm yourself. If you are having these thoughts, get professional help. A therapist can help you tease apart thoughts of loneliness and sadness from thoughts of truly wanting to hurt yourself in a safe environment, and that is exactly what you need at this point.
- Substance abuse — Coping with loss is incredibly difficult—there’s that bottomless pit in your stomach and the ache in the back of your throat that just doesn’t go away. Using substances to numb out is very tempting but it doesn’t work. If you have a history of addiction and are in a relapse, get help. Start going to meetings, and get back into therapy. The relief that drinking or getting high gives you won’t help in the long run; it will just prolong your grief and complicate your life further. You can’t heal while you’re drunk or high; you need to be sober to move through these emotions.
- Inability to function — This can show up in many ways: depression that keeps you in bed and half asleep 18 -20 hours a day, anxiety that prevents you from leaving your house, insomnia or loss of appetite, etc. For some people, after losing a parent, they just can’t function for a while. If you recognize yourself in this way, it is time to get help. When your response to the loss is this intense, it generally doesn’t just get better on its own.
- Time — If more than six months have passed and you find that you are still as upset and emotionally destroyed as you were during those first few weeks, it is time to get help. The pain should lessen over time, with anniversaries, birthdays, Mother’s Day or Father’s Day, and other special days or milestones temporarily making things harder but not erasing all the gains you’ve made over time.
Some Additional Considerations
Losing a parent or close loved one as an adult can flood you with feelings. Being flooded can make you irritable, short-tempered and fragile. Most likely everyone around you—your spouse or partner, your children, and others in your parent’s community—will also be grieving. Some back to basics suggestions for making your home life as peaceful and supportive as possible while you go through this include:
- Self care — Don’t get too hungry, tired, or physically ill. Rest when you need to, eat good food and drink plenty of water. Take short walks outside when you start to get upset or feel burdened or angry. Think about taking care of yourself, because you might not be able to just automatically do these things when you have so many other things on your mind. Write yourself a list if you think that will help.
- Communication — Talk with your partner or spouse. Tell them what’s going on inside you. They can’t know unless you tell them. Tell them what you want and need from them. They love you and want to help, but if your communication style is to clam up or attack when you are feeling so raw, that will only shut out the people around. As obvious as it might sound, try to tell people what you feel, and invite them to share their feelings with you.
- Balance — Take time for yourself, but also maintain your routines. Take “mental health days” from work and/or from home if you need them, but don’t toss out all your structure and routine. Simple concrete things like walking the dog or making lunch for your children can be grounding and helpful when you feel swallowed up by emotions. Honor your emotions but also honor your structure.