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Learning to say goodbye when a parent dies.

Grief is the internal experience of a loss. Mourning is the outward expression. Together they equal bereavement. Bereavement comes from Old English “to rob”. Some people don’t allow themselves to mourn either outwardly or inwardly and this can lead to complicated grief. Emotional numbness is a common experience following a trauma, so it's no wonder it can happen after a death.

You can try to suppress your grief but eventually feelings need to be felt. To heal you need to acknowledge the pain and to express your feelings in a tangible or creative way. Even if you’re not able to talk about your loss with others, it can help to write down your thoughts and feelings in a journal, for example. When someone you know passes away, there’s always a chance that there’s something you didn’t get to tell or resolve with that person. Some people are devastated that a parent didn’t share family recipes, others mourn unresolved arguments or conversations that never took place, and others feel sad that a parent missed a special event. Try writing a letter to your parent where you focus on what you didn’t get to tell your parent, what you want to thank them for, what you regret, and what you hope to carry on as part of their legacy. Or you could release your emotions by making a scrapbook or volunteering for a cause related to your loss. Another suggestion is to designate small amounts of time for grief to start to learn how to cope with it. Give yourself 20 minutes everyday to grieve alone in a safe space.

Losing someone you love is traumatic. Losing a loved one to a terminal illness can add an extra layer to your trauma, as it's not just the death itself but the experience of watching your loved one die which can be traumatic. Our brains try to record everything. That is why, when painful memories drift back, they remain so raw and vivid. When someone dies from a long illness there's this idea that it's easier somehow. But it's not, it's like trauma in slow motion. A quote from Saying Goodbye by Barbara Okun and Joseph Nowinski, page 311, “The closer we are to the loved one we lose, the more likely it is that we will carry with us an emotional scar. Like physical scars, the scar of grief may fade with time, but it will always be there.”

Complicated grief is a type of grief that is characterized by long-lasting and severe painful emotions that make it difficult for you to recover from the loss and resume your own life . It's said that approximately 7% of bereaved people will experience complicated grief, which is the persistent presence of intense symptoms of grief longer than usual. Along with physical symptoms, these people often can't focus on anything else, feel unresolved anger or sadness, and are still struggling to accept the reality of the loss. People experiencing complicated grief may have trouble carrying out normal routines, and thus isolating themselves from others and withdrawing from social activities. People may also experience depression, deep sadness, guilt, self-blame, disbelief, yearning, numbness, frustration, anxiety, and an inability to focus.

Research is underway for the role that flashbacks play in helping us move through the pain. People with photographic memories will struggle with this aspect as their brains tend to remember all the details with perfect clarity.

Flashbacks are a common experience for many people who are grieving. A 2012 study (see source 1) found that 69% of people experienced them in the lead-up to the anniversary of the death of a loved one. “We often retain those memories very strongly because they’ve got a lot of emotion around them,” says Andy Langford, a counsellor and the clinical director at the bereavement charity Cruse. “It’s not just an intellectual memory that we can think of and then dismiss. It’s something that’s really highly charged. They can involve any of the senses. They can be visual, but they can also involve smell, or hearing someone’s voice, or the sounds of when they died, like the rattle in the throat.” (see source 2)

It is important to note that everyone experiences grief differently, and there is no “right” or “wrong” way to grieve. The medical model says grieving over 6 months is a disorder. However, if you are experiencing intense grief and problems functioning that don’t improve at least one year after the passing of your loved one, it may be time to seek treatment A qualified professional can help you understand the grief process and give you the tools you need to cope with your emotions. All things considered, grief is still centered in our minds and our perception, therefore all healing of the body should coincide with healing of the mind. Ask your family doctor, funeral director, or death doula for recommendations, or contact the local branch of the Canadian Mental Health Association.

Suggested reading

• Saying Goodbye a guide to coping with a loved one’s terminal illness by Barbara Okun and Joseph Nowinski

• It’s Ok That You’re Not Ok by Megan Devine

• Disenfranchised Grief by Kenneth J. Doka

• How To Go On Living When Someone You Love Dies by Therese A. Rando, Ph. D.

• Axioms for Survivors How to Live Until You Say Goodbye by Lon G. Nungesser

• Lessons of Loss A Guide to Coping by Robert A. Neimeyer

• Complicated Grief


• Grief can be overwhelming

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