How do you help your parent when their husband or wife is gone? What can you possibly say or do that would help?
It doesn't matter if their spouse died suddenly or if you were all aware that it was coming. Losing the person that they shared their life with is going to be hard on your surviving parent. Nothing in their life will ever be the same again. This situation is made even more difficult if your parent was providing care for their spouse. One day, they had a full routine and purpose, then the next, they find themselves lost.
As much as you'd like to, you can't just wave a wand and make things better.
There is no one thing you can say or do that will heal a broken heart and fix their sense of emptiness — but that doesn't mean that you should do nothing. Let us show you how to help your parent survive this situation and find happiness again.
How to Help a Grieving Parent When Their Spouse is Gone
Grief is an extremely personal experience. The way one person handles their loss will not be the same as someone else. Losing a parent and losing a spouse are two completely different experiences.
It can be tempting to try and compare your pain with your surviving parent and tell them you understand how they feel, but keep in mind that losing a daily companion will have different life changes than losing a parent.
You are both in pain, but your pain isn’t the same.
The best thing that you can do for your parent and for yourself is to be patient and empathetic. You need to take time to work through your own grief so you can provide support to help your mom or dad work through theirs.
The 5 stages of grief are pretty well-known, but when you lose a loved one, it's not a bad idea to read through them. It's good to take a step back and understand that you are NOT crazy — these emotions are normal.
There is nothing wrong with you or your surviving parent. You have every right to feel the way you do and work through your grief the way that helps you both best.
Keep in mind that the stages of grief can be experienced in any order, and you can repeat the stages at any time. Be patient and take it easy on yourself and your mom or dad. You will both heal at your own pace and not a moment sooner. Don't rush it.
The 5 Stages of Grief
It's hard for your mom or dad to accept what is happening to them. The love of their life can’t be gone. They are probably feeling shocked or numb as their body tries to protect them from the overwhelming barrage of emotions. Give them space and allow them to work through what they are feeling.
Your parent’s temper is getting out of control, and they are snapping at their you and their other loved ones unintentionally. They could be blaming God or the universe for what has happened to them. It's ok for your mom or dad to be upset. It's going to take time for them to find a new sense of normal again.
If your mom was dependent on your dad or your dad was your mom's primary caregiver before she passed, the loss will be that much harder. Everything is changing for them. Being angry can be better than being sad sometimes. Just try to remain patient and give them space if things become heated.
The past keeps replaying in their mind, and they can't help but think of what if's. What could they have done to prevent this from happening? If they had only done x, y, or z, then things might have been different.
Your mom or dad could be beating themselves up for not noticing something was wrong sooner. It's important to remind them that it is not their fault. They did everything they could have done in that situation, and they were the best spouse they could have been.
Depression is normal, and some of the sadness you and your surviving parent are experiencing might never go away completely — and that is ok. You have both suffered a tremendous loss.
Crying, trouble sleeping, and a decreased appetite are all normal. If depression lasts longer than 3 months or you are worried about your parent having suicidal thoughts, don't wait too long to get help. Reach out to their primary care doctor and talk to your doctor if either of you needs assistance. It's ok to ask for help.
Acceptance comes at different times for everyone. Your parent can even experience this stage and then find themselves back in denial later. This is where reality has set in, and they realize that life will never be the same. Now they are trying to make the best of the situation and move on with their lives.
Recommended Reading: Ask the Expert - Moving Through Grief
Take Care of Yourself
When you’re hurting, it's easy to ignore your grief and focus on helping your mom or dad through theirs. You throw yourself into doing everything you can to make them happy and make their lives a little brighter. Eventually, you will burn out, and your pain will surface during unexpected times and in unexpected ways.
You must take care of yourself if you’re going to help your surviving parent. Take the time to eat, get plenty of sleep, cry when you need to, and talk about your mom or dad when you feel the urge.
Don't be afraid to give yourself space and alone time when you need it. You can't take care of them if you aren't getting what you need too.
Show Up and Listen
It's hard to show up and listen when you are scared of saying something that will upset them. It's easy to put off visits and avoid conversations about their deceased spouse. You don't want to make them cry or say something that will make it worse. There is no advice that you can give them that you feel would be helpful or welcomed.
Sometimes, the best thing you can do is sit in silence and be present.
Let them talk if they want to talk. Don't offer advice or empty niceties. Just listen. Smile at them when appropriate and squeeze their hand or offer a hug. Show them that it's ok to be sad together and let them know that they don't have to pretend to be ok when they are not.
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Lighten Their Load
Your parent will have many things that need taken care of while they work through the grief. The best ways you can help are to assist with the funeral arrangements, notifying friends and family, start a meal train, help take care of pets, or arrange someone to mow the lawn.
All the little things that pile up when they don't seem important anymore are the things you need to help your mom or dad with. Nothing seems important to them right now.
They just lost their companion and the love of their life. Even if they didn't have the best relationship, their spouse was still a considerable part of their life. Everything will be overwhelming to them right now.
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Remember Important Dates
The hardest times of the year are going to be the holidays, birthdays, and anniversaries. You will also want to make note of their death date since your surviving parent may want to visit their grave on that day.
Add these important dates to your calendar and reach out to your mom or dad when it's that time. It's important to show them you care, and they might need to talk and share memories of anniversaries and holidays that have passed.
Encourage Your Parent to Enjoy Hobbies
Grief can make us not want to do anything. The hobbies we once enjoyed are tossed aside for hours on the couch or in bed instead.
You might notice that your mom or dad has withdrawn from activities they used to enjoy. Bowling every Sunday or tending to the garden has turned into watching the news and taking naps.
Encourage your parent to get back into hobbies when they are ready. Reconnecting with friends and participating in church or other community activities will help them and you immensely.
Invite Them to Exercise
Depression can cause muscle aches, joint pain, and headaches. The lack of motivation to get up will make this worse. Invite your mom or dad to take a nature hike or hit the gym with you.
Not feeling that adventurous? Take a walk around your neighborhood instead. Getting exercise can help you both feel better physically and mentally.
Join a Support Group
If you are feeling alone or need someone to talk to that understands how you feel, joining a support group would be beneficial. You could ask your mom or dad to join one with you, or sign up for one solo if they don’t want to go.
Don't Give Up
Working through your grief and helping your mom or dad won’t be easy. There will be times where you are both frustrated or feeling lost. Remember that you are not alone and be willing to try new things that might help.
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