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How to help your grieving parent

Supporting an elderly loved one when you are also grieving is difficult. We have some practical advice to help.

March 14, 2022

Grieving elderly parent

Supporting somebody after the death of someone close is never easy. Here we talk about how to help your grieving parent while you are also grieving.

It can be particularly challenging when one of your parents has died and you are trying to support the surviving partner. This may be emotionally more complex if one of your parents is a step-parent, whatever the circumstances that brought that person into your life.

Your grieving parent is often the person you have always turned to when needing support. This role reversal might mean you can share memories and provide each other with mutual support.

However, it might be that the parent who has died provided both emotional and practical support for your surviving parent, and you now find yourself taking on that role.

 

Understanding grief

Grief can be a chaotic mix of emotions that may seem unpredictable and contradictory.

How can you be both heart-broken that someone has died and also furious with them at having abandoned you? Both are entirely normal aspects of grief.

Sometimes your emotions can be so intense that you become fearful for your sanity. Seeing someone you care about being equally distressed, but on a different timescale to you, places extra demands on your patience and forbearance.

 

Making decisions when grieving

Unless your surviving parent has impaired mental capacity or a power of attorney arrangement, provided they were in a legally recognised relationship with their partner, they are the nearest next-of-kin of the person who has died. This means decision-making about funeral arrangements rests with them. The exception to this is when the responsibility has been delegated to an executor of their will (if they have written a will).

Making decisions at times of great distress is hard, especially when the person who you always discussed big decisions with is missing. Denial of what has happened is common in the early days after a death, so discussions about registration of the death and what type of funeral to have can become fraught.

Even if your parent wants to leave the decision-making to you, it is best to encourage them to become involved. Although in the short-term it may feel easier to do everything yourself, this could lead to long-term regrets for your parent and even recriminations against you.

If your parents were neither married nor in a civil partnership, you may have the status of being the nearest relative and may also be an executor of the will. Even so you will want to try and involve your parent in decision-making conversations.

If you do not have an easy relationship with your surviving parent (or their surviving partner who may not be your parent) please do call the National Bereavement Service for advice, especially if you are the legal nearest relative.

National Bereavement Service

You can call National Bereavement Service (NBS) for more information about any of this on 0800 024 6146 or visit www.thenbs.org

NBS website

 

Making funeral arrangements

Unless you are required by your faith to have a funeral very quickly, there is no rush. So, take your time to choose readings, music, and thinking about who to invite.

Registering a death

Read our step-by-step guide with advice about what to do when someone dies.

What to do when someone dies

 

Registering the death

Some registrars of death will insist on the immediate next-of-kin being present to register the death unless there is a strong reason that prevents this.

It is worth going through the information that will be needed before the appointment. Write it down in case memory fails during the registration. That kind of memory failure can affect people of any age when grieving.

Registering a death

The National Bereavement Service website has helpful information about how to register a death.

NBS website

 

Notifying relevant organisations

Much of the work involved in notifying the government and commercial organisations of the death can be completed online. If your parent is not a ‘silver surfer’, it can help to have a written ‘to do’ list of tasks.

You may want to share the tasks between you. If you have to be in touch with the coroner’s office or appoint a legal advisor, try and encourage your parent to be present at least for the first phone call or appointment. This means they know your parent has given consent for you to act as their representative.

 

Looking after physical health

1. Make sure your parent’s GP knows of their bereavement

Grief has been shown to have a significant impact on the immune system and can exacerbate existing conditions. It is common for people to develop new conditions or have symptoms that mimic the symptoms experienced by the person who has died. You could discretely check if your parent is taking any prescribed medication correctly.

2. Encourage  your parent to eat healthily 

Encourage  your parent to eat healthily even if they are only able to graze rather than eating regularly. This and the following points apply to you just as much as your parent. If you parent is able to do so, you may be able to persuade them to take exercise with you, or if you cannot go with them, you may be able to arrange for somebody else to do so.

3. Let people provide practical help

When somebody loses a loved one, people want to help but they often don’t know what help to give, so this is a practical opportunity.

Friends and neighbours may also help with taking your parent shopping or giving lifts to appointments if they do not drive themselves.

4. Encourage good sleep and rest

Disrupted sleep is common in bereavement. Usually this settles with the passing of time. Alcohol can make sleeplessness worse and medication is a very short-term last resort.

There are also solutions for remote home monitoring of elderly loved ones, if your parent needs additional care and you do not live nearby.

 

Providing emotional support

It is quite common for an older person who is mourning the death of their life partner to express a wish to join the person who has died. This can feel very hurtful for younger generations in the family.

Older people do sometimes take their own lives, and the death of a life partner is a significant risk factor. So, do listen if your parent expresses thoughts like this. The Samaritan’s website explains what to do if you are worried.

Your parent will need time and love from the people around them and this can be a real challenge if you live at a distance and have family and work responsibilities of your own. Accept that you cannot make your parent ‘feel better’ anymore than someone else can heal your grief.

Regular small tokens of love will help, such as phone calls, cards in the post and enlisting the help of wider family and neighbours to knock on the door regularly over a sustained period of time, not just until after the funeral.

Many GP surgeries now have social prescribers who can help with combatting loneliness through their knowledge  of local groups and other resources.

Explain to your parent that they can call the Samaritans at any time of day or night if they need to talk to someone immediately. Most people who call the Samaritans are in great distress but not actively suicidal. Reassure them that this is a valid phone number: 116 123.

In the long-term, there are practical things you can do to reduce loneliness in elderly relatives and encourage them to make new friends and be socially active.

 

Allowing time to grieve

Grieving for someone you loved is so very hard and often takes far longer than you expected. Most people are remarkable resilient, and each moment and day survived is an achievement.

People we loved who have died remain within our hearts and minds and can be treasured there with all the precious memories.

 

Get support from the National Bereavement Service

If you are struggling with grief or you would like advice about how to help your grieving parent, please contact the National Bereavement Service. They can provide you with both practical and emotional at this challenging time.

Talk to the National Bereavement Service, in confidence, through their live chat service or call the dedicated Taking Care helpline on 0800 024 6146.

By focusing on someone else’s needs, it’s easy to neglect your own. If you are a carer, make sure you take time to care for yourself too.

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