Bereaved parents of adult children
There has been a lot of media attention lately on the subject of bereaved parents and ways to support them, but the focus has been on those who are parents of babies or children. There is another group of parents not getting as much acknowledgement, those who children are adults.
It doesn’t make it any easier to lose a child later in life, it is still as painful and bewildering for this group of parents. They may have other considerations to deal with as well, for example, a grandchild who have lost their parent. This may mean they put their feelings down to “stay strong” and support their grandchildren emotionally. They may even have to end up being the primary caregiver depending on the situation that the family is in.
There may also be a lot of history to be processed and they run the risk of getting stuck into “what ifs”. What if I did this differently, or that. The weight of their history can become overwhelming.
How can they be supported?
In many ways, it is the same as anyone who is dealing with a bereavement but you have to particularly respect to the fact they have lost their child. What is going to be really damaging to them would be “well at least you had x number of years with them”.
Don’t assume that your bereavements are anything like theirs. Thankfully most parents are not in the position where they outlive their children. If you have been through it, the chances are you already know from your own experience all of these things.
A simple thing to keep in mind
The best things to keep in mind is one simple guideline: never assume, just be there.
Instead of statements like “You must be/you must feel…” simply ask how they are. They will tell you what they are able to say at the time. It may not be much. Never say things like “you will get over it” or “you will never get over it”.
You may not see their grief, but don’t assume it isn’t there. While you may also be grieving, don’t assume they want to hear about it. Having to try and support you is not necessarily going to be something they can cope with.
Your opinions are not required unless asked for. While you may think it will be helpful to tell the person how the funeral should be, or what to do about the grandchild or any other topic, don’t assume they are needed. Offering yourself as a sounding board for the person to talk through all the pros and cons of the many decisions they have to make without judgment will be much more helpful.
They may not be able to talk about the child they have lost. Don’t assume this means they will never want to talk, or that they don’t want company now. The best support people can give each other is just being with them. Being present, even if you are in silence or talking about trivial things tells them they are not alone and that they are cared for.
They may not be behaving how you imagine you would in the same situation. They still have to eat, so maybe shopping and cooking or doing the cleaning and laundry as normal. A lot of these things are necessary to continue functioning and there is also comfort in them. There is a reason why people bring food to bereaved people, it’s because it’s a useful practical way to help without demanding anything of them.
I want to offer practical help
Offering help can be tricky. Being specific in your offer is probably the best, e.g. “I’m going to come and do your ironing today” or “I’ve made you a pie. I will put it in the freezer for when you need it”. However, be aware that what you are offering may not be required. Make sure the person has a way to refuse it and don’t be offended if they do. For example, if you say, “I will come and spend tomorrow afternoon with you as it’s the only time I have free” they may have plans already such as visiting the undertakers. This is going to put them in an uncomfortable position.
A really useful thing to do to help is telling other people what’s happened. Let the bereaved person know you are willing to do that and ask who you can ring. Think about friends you have in common. This means they are not in the position of having to repeat what’s happened to lots of people.
While the subject of money can be sensitive, don’t assume it is not a worry. There may not be any money put by for a funeral so the costs will be unexpected and very high. Is there any way you can help with this? It’s better to offer sensitively and not be needed that to keep quiet and leave the person to worry about this as well.
And finally, don’t assume that someone else is taking care of them and giving them the support they need when you are not. Never assume this, if you want to support them, be with them.
This article, where Prince Harry talks about his delayed grief over his Mother is very moving. He talks about the consequences of not dealing with his feelings at the time and the impact of that in later life.
By having counselling, he has found a space to explore that grief and found a way finally to process it.
In my experience, buried feelings always have an impact on how we live our lives, even decades later. Not everyone wants to address them and they find a way to cope, but for others it is a way to heal and live a more fulfilled life. That’s certainly what it sounds like Prince Harry has found.
Do you know how to support bereaved parents of adult children?
Its a type of bereavement that doesn’t get as much written about it as when the deceased are children or babies yet the parents have still lost their child, whatever age they are.
For the surviving parent or parents, like with any bereavement time changes the way grief presents but it doesn’t go away. Whether it is six months, a year or ten years on their lives have changed irrevocably.
One of the most painful things can be how wiped out of history their child is; this can happen when people around them find it too difficult to talk about the dead person. So what happens is they avoid the subject and the parents are left alone with their grief.
It can also happen when people around them are making assumptions about the level of their grief; just because the parent is functioning and getting on with their life it doesn’t mean they are not still in pain. Mothers Day, the child birthday, the parents birthday, Christmas or other significant dates will be particularly difficult.
The parents may also have taken on a new role as primary caregiver to their grandchildren and be dealing with the many challenges this can bring.
Sometimes the simplest things can be really effective, a handwritten note saying you are thinking of them, showing them a photo you have found of their child, acknowledging their loss, asking how they are and being prepared to listen if they want to talk or to accept if they don’t.
The guideline is the same as when the bereavement first happens, even if some time has past never assume, just be there.
Bereavement is so hard to deal with, but this quote really struck me.
There are many different types of bereavement, the losses that we feel grief over are more than just when people we care about die.
Sometimes people leave us. This can be family, for example when a parent or sibling leaves the family home we can be left feeling abandoned. Our friendship groups may break apart, this is very noticeable in school but it can happen at any age. We may separate with romantic partners and feel a great lose due to that.
Other types of loses can also be incredibly hard to cope with. The loss of a home – this can be due to poverty, breakdown of relationships or a secondary bereavement when a loved one dies.
The loss of innocence can be very traumatic if it comes through abuse. This can also link to being a victim of other types of crimes like a mugging or burglary, where we can loose a sense of safety in our surrounding.
The loss of a job through redundancy can be very upsetting as it can challenge our sense of self, our purpose in the world and our self esteem.
The loss of health, having to adjust to a future without the health we may have taken for granted up to then.
All these are examples of loss and bereavement, all these losses can have long term psychological impacts and we may grieve for what has been lost or the future we thought we were going to have.
What losses have you experienced?
How are you keeping your loved ones alive?
Do you have people to talk to about them?
Talking to a counsellor can be a good place to start.