Loss Squared…Surviving the Death of your Second Parent

The loss of a parent, at any age or stage is sad and traumatic. Usually when we lose our first parent, we are surrounded by friends, family, and rituals to help us manage our grief.

A lot of the ‘tasks’ associated with the death of a parent are typically handled by the surviving parent. Details, such as funeral arrangements, are taken care of so that we, as adult children, can be part adult and part child.

While we suffer the loss of our beloved parent, we are comforted by the fact that we still have one left. There is still a grownup in charge.  Most often after the death of one parent, the surviving parent remains in the marital residence, assumes legal responsibilities for the will, and financial matters, and life goes on.

All that Changes with the Death of the Second Parent

The sense of loss when the second parent passes is magnified exponentially. We are now orphaned. No one on the planet knows us as long or as well. Our foundation is rocked and at the very time we need our parents the most, they are not here for us.

Add to our grief, the responsibility of cleaning out the house, managing the legal and financial affairs, and dealing with siblings, and you have a recipe for discord and depression.

Think You’re Ready, Think Again

If you have been involved in care giving for your parent, you may feel you are prepared for their passing. Not so. No amount of ‘knowledge’ can replace the raw feelings of being orphaned. You might think you have survived death once and that you can surely manage better now that you are experienced. Not so.

Everyone has their own personal and unique relationship with their parents.  My mother and I were very close, and we spoke at least once a day on the phone. She died at 62 years old…way too young.  While I didn’t have that type of daily contact with my dad, his passing rocked my world in a different way. When my mother died, I had three small children and a household to run. I was busy, I ran through the grief. I didn’t have the luxury of time to myself; my family needed me.

When my dad died, just four years ago, I didn’t have the distraction of being needed on a daily basis. I had time to mourn and time to reflect. I also had the privilege of having my dad die in my home. I say privilege because I finally had the opportunity to talk to my father in a profound, meaningful way. The last conversations were not the usual superficial ones, which had been a mainstay of our past relationship.  I was able to hear the words that I had longed to hear my entire life. He died at peace and I got the gift of closure.

Some Useful Coping Tips

  • Don’t let anyone dismiss or diminish your loss. Ignore people who say well meaning things like “She was old, she had a good life”, or “it’s a blessing”.  Well intentioned people minimize loss by focusing on the suffering before death. For a mourner, the loss is no less painful.
  • Reflect on the legacy left to you. Embrace your parents core values as if they were watching. Who knows, they may be.
  • Be kind to your siblings. Understand that they are suffering too. Understand that there is more than one way express grief.
  • Share the responsibilities for after death necessities with your siblings.  Don’t be a martyr and try to do it all alone.
  • Honor your parents’ memory. A gift to a charity in their honor, a donation to a cause they believed in, will help memorialize their life
  • Keep their memory alive. Talk to your children about their grandparents. Talk to your grandchildren about your parents. Talk to your siblings about childhood memories.
  • Don’t be afraid to ask for help. Professionals are available to provide counseling and support.
  • There is no handbook, no rules apply, everyone’s process is unique to them.

After receiving my Master’s degree in Gerontology in 1975, my father would proudly tell people that he paid for my education so that I could take care of him in his old age.  It was my pleasure, Poppy.

~  Candy Blau, MA