9 tips for coping with the death of a parent

No amount of preparation can make losing an elderly parent any easier, even if they’ve lived a long, full life.

After the initial shock, there are a whole host of logistical details that need to be sorted out—finances, funeral arrangements, helping your surviving parent decide what to do next.

You may be stressed about taking too much time off from work and worried about how your teenage children will handle losing a grandparent. And you’re expected to navigate all of these challenges (and more) while trying to put on a brave face for your family, even though you’re grieving, too.

“Despite the fact that their elderly parent lived a long life, surviving children may be surprised at the collection of emotions they experience,” says Grief Recovery Specialist Shelby Forsythia, who also hosts a grief podcast. “Age does not excuse the fact that when someone dies, our hearts are broken and our lives change.”

Though it’s a difficult topic to consider, losing an elderly parent is a painful reality for many people. There are some ways to make this transition a little easier on everyone, though. Here are 9 tips for coping with the death of a parent.

1. Be understanding

Everyone processes grief and loss differently. Keep that in mind when it comes to your surviving parent, your teenage children and your other family members. Some may prefer to keep themselves busy and grieve in private, while others may mask their grief by trying to make others laugh. Forsythia says you should have a “zero-judgement mentality” when it comes to grief—just because someone isn’t visibly emotional doesn’t mean they’re not grieving in their own way.

2. Give yourself a break

Remember, you don’t have to take on every task right away after a parent dies. If the thought of sorting through Mom’s belongings is too painful right now, give yourself permission to breathe. Consider enlisting the help of ClosetBox to come pick up your parent’s cherished belongings and store them in a private vault. When you’re emotionally ready and you’ve got time to dedicate to the task of looking through those valuable keepsakes, the ClosetBox team will return your parent’s belongings.

3. Get organized

Though it may feel taboo to be worried about money during such a difficult time, the reality is that you’re going to have a lot of bills and important financial documents to keep track of after a loved one passes away. Consider creating a space in your home dedicated to dealing with financial and legal matters—don’t leave a mess of paperwork on the dining room table. Invest in a binder or an accordion-style paper organizer so that you’re never frantically looking for paperwork.

4. Don’t forget to take care of yourself

You may be busy taking care of logistical details or putting on a happy face for other family members, but remember to take care of yourself, too. Grief is an exhausting emotion, physically and mentally, so set aside a few hours to do what makes you happy. Take a walk, work on a passion project in the garage or listen to your favorite playlist.

5. Consider talking to a professional

And while we’re on the subject of self-care, recognize that it’s OK to visit a counselor if you’re having trouble processing a parent’s death. A therapist can help you develop strategies for dealing with your grief and sadness, according to the American Psychological Association. “Being able to tell your story in a place that is neutral and without judgment is one of the fastest, most constructive ways to get back to your life,” says Forsythia.

If you’ve never visited a mental health professional or you’re skeptical about the process, consider the example you’re setting for your children (who will soon be young adults themselves). Show them that it’s OK to ask for help and talk about their feelings—you’ll demonstrate the importance of healthy coping mechanisms.

“Children grieve like parents grieve,” Forsythia says. “We need to show kids it’s OK to cry in the open, talk about the loved ones we’ve lost and ask questions about death and dying.”

6. Don’t be surprised by unexpected feelings

If your parent suffered from a long illness or reached an impressive age, you probably considered the prospect of death for several months or years. But just because your brain understands that life is coming to an end doesn’t mean your heart will necessarily keep up. You may feel a rush of unexpected emotions.

“People may assume losing an elderly parent is somewhat expected, therefore lessening the blow,” says Jessica Meiman, a licensed mental health counselor in New York City who specializes in grief and loss. “However, your parent’s age when they pass changes nothing about the gravity and pain of the loss. Your relationship with your parent was and is unique, and so is your experience of their passing, and that’s OK.”

Similarly, if you’ve been the primary caregiver for your mom or dad, you may feel a mix of emotions, including relief, after their death. That’s OK, too. “To feel this way does not mean you’re a bad person … it means you’re human,” Meiman says. “Grief cannot be boiled down to one feeling, so try not to blame yourself for the ebbs and flows you will experience after losing your parent.”

7. Offer support to your surviving parent

After one of your parents passes away, you’ll instinctively attend to the emotional needs of your surviving parent. But there may also be some logistical matters to consider. The majority of adults with a parent over the age of 65 help with their affairs and care, according to the Pew Research Center. Recognize that your surviving parent is entering a new life stage and discuss that idea with them—do they want a caregiver to stop by every week? Who will drive them to appointments and to the grocery store? How do they plan to spend their time now?

8. Accept help—and ask for it

After the death of a parent, you may find yourself juggling a full plate at work and dozens of other tasks. But remember: You don’t have to do everything alone. If someone offers to mow the lawn or send over a prepared meal for your family, accept their help graciously. “Don’t hesitate to ask for help, and if your friends and family offer their support, take them up on it,” says Rod Gomez, general manager at Fairhaven Memorial Park Mortuary in Santa Ana, California. “Delegate some of the many tasks you now face. It will help you get things done and allow (friends and family) to express how much they care through their actions.” 

Similarly, while it may feel convenient for you to offer up your home for a reception or to help make travel arrangements for out-of-town guests, remember this doesn’t have to be your responsibility, Gomez says. Mortuaries can often help with flights, hotels and other details, such as organizing a reception at a local restaurant or at their facility.

9. Let go

When a loved one dies, it’s easy to replay every fight or disagreement you had and wonder what you could’ve said differently. You may second-guess choices you made, such as moving your elderly parent into an assisted living facility. But being hard on yourself after the fact isn’t productive or helpful to the healing process, says Lauren Drago, a mental health clinician on the East Coast. “Try to be kind to yourself during this time,” Drago says. “Know that you did the best that you could at the time with the information and resources at hand. Try one day at a time to let it go.”