10/29/2021 | By Kari Smith

As painful as it is, death is sadly a part of life. It touches us all, whether in our own loss or supporting a friend or loved one. As the adult child of an aging parent, you may struggle with how to support a grieving parent as they deal with the loss of a partner or close friend. 

We all experience and work through grief differently, so what works for you may not work for your parent. The situation becomes more challenging if you are both experiencing grief. Although you may be working through the loss yourself, there are still ways you can show love to a parent in grief.

Address immediate needs

Outside of grief, your parent may have other pressing practical needs. For example, if your parent loses a spouse, consider the things they did for her on a daily basis. If they cooked for her, cut the grass, or served as primary caregiver of their pet, those immediate needs must be met. Your parent will need regular meals and help with outdoor chores. If they cannot care for a pet, other arrangements should be made. If the partner managed the finances and handled all business, you may need to immediately ensure that the bills are paid and the estate is settled. 

Can your aging parent take care of themselves and their basic needs alone, or do you need to consider senior residential care options? This is not always a decision that needs to be made immediately, but if the person who has passed was your parent’s primary caregiver, these decisions will need to be made immediately.

Listen patiently

Remember that although you may be experiencing loss of the same person, your relationship to the deceased is completely different, and thus your methods for coping with their loss will be different. 

In figuring out how to support a grieving parent, do not assume that you know what they need. Although they may not know either (yet), patiently listen to them and allow them to express what they are experiencing. They may need to talk, but they may prefer not to. 

If your parent’s emotional requirements are concerning, or you feel that you are unable to offer the emotional support they need, gently offer grief counseling or support groups as an option. They may not feel completely comfortable opening up to you, especially if you are also grieving. They may also find comfort in speaking to peers who are in a similar situation.

Help where needed

After losing a spouse, your parent may want to hang on to the loved one’s clothing or other belongings – maybe even for a period that seems unreasonable to you. As long as there is no reason to clean them out (for example, downsizing to a smaller assisted living space), do not push them to take action if they are not ready. 

On the other hand, if they are ready to sort through personal effects of a loved one before you are ready, understand that this is an important and perhaps healing part of their grieving process. It may be painful to help with such a personal task, but it may be more painful for them to see those items on a daily basis. 

Watch for changes in health

Keep a watchful eye on your parent. You can do this directly, when possible, or through a trusted caregiver or companion. It may be appropriate to use technology to keep tabs on your loved one (without invading their privacy). Examples of such technologies are The Care Hub through Amazon Alexa, location sharing on mobile phones and smart watches, and video surveillance cameras. 

Look for warning signs such as extreme exhaustion, changes in weight, or signs of forgetfulness or confusion. Grief may rob them of sleep. It may cause depression, which may lead to a number of other concerning health issues. It may leave them without an appetite and lead to dangerous weight loss. If you are vigilant in looking for these changes – even through phone conversations or video chats – you may be able to spot an issue and address it before it escalates.

Be prepared for them to move on

It may take years for your parent to take a step that feels like “moving on” for you. They will go at their own pace, which may be different from yours. 

On the other hand, they may move more quickly than you expect. As long as they are not behaving dangerously or recklessly, understand that they may want to date again. This may be hard to watch if you are not ready for these changes, but understand that a new relationship may bring them joy and healing. Try to be supportive of that which is healthy or brings them joy.

At the same time, beware of internet romance scams. A heartless scammer can easily take advantage of a grieving person’s loneliness. 

Be aware of triggers

Holidays, birthdays, anniversaries, and other special occasions may be especially challenging. Be sure to mark these days on a calendar and reach out to your parent with extra love and support.

Take care of yourself 

Helping your grieving parent may be a priority, but unless you take care of yourself, you may not be in the best shape to take care of someone else. Be intentional in your self-care, including your physical, mental, and emotional health. When you take care of yourself, you will be able to be the most capable of knowing how to support a grieving parent – or any other loved one. 

Kari Smith

Kari Smith is a frequent contributor to Seniors Guide, helping to keep those in the senior industry informed and up-to-date. She's a Virginia native whose love of writing began as a songwriter recording her own music. In addition to teaching music and performing in the Richmond area, Kari also enjoys riding horses and farming.

Kari Smith