NYC Psychotherapist Blog

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Monday, November 27, 2017

Grief: The Emotional Impact of Losing Both of Your Parents

Even if you think you're prepared for the deaths of your parents, the actual experience can be emotionally challenging and change how you feel about yourself (see my other articles about death and grief: 

Holding Onto Grief as a Way to Stay Emotionally Connected to a Deceased Loved One).

Grief: The Emotional Impact of Losing Both of Your Parents

Most people, who have lost their last parent, say that they never anticipated feeling like an "orphan."

You might think that once you're an adult and you begin seeing your parents' health deteriorate, something you anticipated for a long time, that you would be prepared yourself for it emotionally, but the actual experience is different from what most people expect.

A Fictional Vignette: The Emotional Impact of Losing Both Parents

Ted's father died when Ted was in his late 40s.

Ted and his father were close, and it was difficult to see his father struggling with dementia during the  last several years of his father's life.

During his father's early struggle with dementia, Ted moved closer to his parents, and he and his younger sister took turns helping their parents with basic daily activities of life.

All the time that he was spending with his family put a strain on his marriage, which was already falling apart.  This eventually led to his wife asking him for a divorce.  Even though Ted would have liked to salvage his marriage, his wife had already made up her mind.

Ted understood that they both had been unhappy in their marriage for a long time, but he felt it was especially thoughtless for his wife to leave at that point when he was already struggling emotionally.

When the end came, Ted grieved for the loss of his father, and he was flooded with many early memories of their good times together.

He also spent more time with his mother, whose health also began to deteriorate.

Ted noticed that, after his father died, his mother was having serious memory lapses, and her doctor confirmed that, similar to his father, his mother was suffering with dementia.

There were times when his mother thought that Ted was his father.  There were also other times when she seemed to be completely lucid, and Ted cherished those times.

The emotional burden of ending a 20-year marriage, taking care of his mother, who was gradually slipping away into advanced dementia, and maintaining a stressful full time job weighed heavily on Ted.

He knew he could talk to his sister and to friends, but Ted realized that he needed more than that--he needed help from a psychotherapist.

Grief: The Emotional Impact of Losing Both of Your Parents

By the time he began therapy, Ted had already lost 20 pounds and he was looking gaunt (see my article: Self Care For Caregivers).

He knew he wasn't taking care of himself, and he needed emotional support.

He told his therapist that he always anticipated and feared this stage of his life, but going through it now was much worse than he anticipated.

Before his father's health deteriorated, Ted looked up to him as a strong, wise, vibrant man.  He admired his father's wisdom, and he often sought his father's advice.

He told his therapist that if his father was still alive, they would have discussed his mother's condition and come up with a plan, but his father was gone and, even with his sister's help, Ted felt alone, especially after his wife left him.

Watching his mother deteriorate almost seemed unreal to him.  When she was in good health, she was very sharp, and she had always been an active and admired member of their community.  Now, he could hardly believe this was the same woman.

Having the emotional support of his psychotherapist helped Ted to get through this difficult time.  He also began taking better care of himself.

A year later, Ted could no longer maintain his mother at home, and he and his sister placed her in a skilled nursing facility.  By that time, his mother no longer recognized either of them, but they both went to visit her every week.

Two years later, Ted got the call from the nursing facility that his mother died.  He went through the motions with his sister of arranging for her funeral.

A week after the funeral, Ted felt lost.  He had never experienced anything like this before.  Not only did he miss his parents, but he also felt like a young, vulnerable child again who was unprotected in a potentially dangerous world.

The reality was that Ted was functioning much better on a day-to-day level compared to how he was doing before he went to therapy.  But his inner emotional experience was that he felt so young, lonely and vulnerable--as if he wouldn't survive without his parents.

His therapist helped Ted to understand that he was going through a normal stage of grieving that most people experience after their second parent dies.

Ted spent many sessions talking to his therapist about feeling lost and dreams that he had about being young and being with his parents.

He suddenly realized that now that both of his parents were dead, they had taken a part of him with them.

With his parents and aunts and uncles gone, there was now no one who knew him as a young child.

His sister, who was 10 years younger than Ted, remembered certain aspects of his adolescence and they could talk about their parents, but Ted felt the loss of those early childhood experiences with his parents.

Ted also began thinking more about his own mortality, which he used to avoid doing in the past.  He kept thinking, "Now that my parents are gone, I'm next."

He realized how precious time is, and he felt like he was wasting time in a job that he hated.

More than ever, he felt the need to be doing something that he really liked, so he went for training to become a graphic artist, something that he had always wanted to do (see my article: Reclaiming a Lost Part of Yourself and Finding Personal Meaning in Your Life).

To deal with his grief, Ted went to the cemetery once a week to visit his parents' grave.  At first, he felt awkward about what to do.  But as time went on, as he stood by the grave, he had conversations with his parents.

Ted wasn't sure if he believed in an afterlife or not or if he was really communicating with his parents, but he felt soothed by these conversations.

As he continued to talk to his therapist about his experiences with grief, Ted began to realize that his relationships with his parents didn't end after their death.  By remembering them, talking about them and having these conversations at the grave site, he was continuing to develop his inner experience of his relationship with his parents.

As time went on, Ted developed a different perspective about each of his parents.  He could now understand how they felt about the deaths of their parents and the sacrifices they made to maintain a good life for him and his sister even when they were grieving.

He knew that his friends meant well, but some of them weren't very tactful--telling him things like he shouldn't feel as bad because his parents were both in their 90s when they died (see my article: Expressing Condolences in a Caring and Tactful Manner).

Ted knew that they didn't understand because they hadn't experienced the loss of both of their parents yet.

Other friends, who hadn't lost either parent yet, seemed to be avoiding Ted, as if they were trying to avoid thinking about the eventual deaths of their own parents and their own death.

So, having a time and place in therapy was very helpful to Ted, especially his  friends and family members stopped calling him as much to find out how he was doing.

Ted also found it very helpful to write about his feelings in a journal (see my article: Writing to Cope With Grief) and The Benefits of Writing Between Therapy Sessions).

Grief: The Emotional Impact of Losing Both of Your Parents

A year later, Ted was working at a job that he really loved.  He was also dating a new woman and their relationship was getting serious.

Although the emotional pain wasn't as acute as it had been after his parents died, Ted still thought about them every day and wondered what they would think as he was making changes in his life.

His weekly ritual of visiting his parents grave site and seeing his therapist continued to soothe him, as he went through his grieving process.

Many people experience the loss of their last parent as a loss of a part of themselves.

It often comes as a surprise that they feel as if they have been orphaned and a younger part of themselves feels more vulnerable.

They develop a different perspective of their lives, realizing that life is finite.  This can lead to making major changes in life to live a happier life.

People who haven't experienced the loss of the last parent often don't understand what it's like.  Although they might be well-meaning, their lack of understanding often causes them to say tactless things or to avoid contact.

It's also not unusual for marriages that are already struggling to fall apart during this time as the emotional impact of grieving puts extra stress on a marriage.

Having a place where you can talk about your loss and the internal changes you're going through can be soothing.

Getting Help in Therapy
If you're going through a difficult time grieving the loss of your parents, you could benefit from seeing a skilled psychotherapist who can help you through the stages of mourning (see my article: The Benefits of Psychotherapy and How to Choose a Psychotherapist).

Everyone goes through the mourning process in his or her own way.  There is no "right way" to do it.

An experienced psychotherapist knows that mourning is a unique experience and can help you through the process so you don't get stuck in complicated grief (see my article: Unresolved Grief and Complicated Mourning).

Family members and friends, who are uncomfortable with the thoughts of their parents' and their own mortality, might tell you to get "get over it" or to "move on" with your life.  Even though they might be well-meaning, this can cause you to feel ashamed of your feelings.

Rather than suffering alone, you could benefit from working with a skilled psychotherapist, who has experience helping clients through the mourning process.

About Me
I am a licensed New York City psychotherapist, hypnotherapist, EMDR and Somatic Experiencing therapist who works with individual adults and couples.

I have helped many clients to work through the mourning process.

To find out more about me, visit my website: Josephine Ferraro, LCSW - NYC Psychotherapist.

To set up a consultation, call me at (917) 742-2624 during business hours or email me.

Also, see my other articles about grief: Articles About Grief - by Josephine Ferraro, LCSW.