When one of your parents dies: facing the firsts

When you are an adult child and one of your parents dies, it unleashes a whole lot for everyone to deal with. While grieving yourself, you may also be trying to support your surviving parent through all the changes as well as be present to their grief. I have been reflecting on the new firsts a surviving parent has to face. Instead of tips or do’s and don’ts, this blog is more of an invitation to be in reflection about the new firsts.

New firsts for your mom or dad

A significant challenge for the adult child can be watching their surviving parent face the many new firsts which life without their partner/spouse creates. Many couples divide up work and chores, often along gender lines. At the very least, they likely relied on each other to some degree. When one of them dies, it leaves a significant empty space that the other once filled with both their presence and their skill set.

There were lots of new firsts for my mom. The one that stirred up particularly deep feelings for both me and her was the fact that, at 81, she was now living alone for the first time in her life. Living alone in a big old 4 bedroom home.  Just imagine.  Daunting for her to face, painful for me to watch.

What spaces and new firsts are you watching your mom or dad meet?

Vulnerability: FFTs

As Brené Brown points us in one of her podcasts, new things, first times, come with vulnerability. In fact, Brown describes a first time as the pinnacle of being vulnerable. I think Brown’s perspective on vulnerability and what she calls FFTs or the PG version of TFT -terrible first times- is helpful in the context of our surviving parent.

New things are awkward and uncomfortable and confusing. And it isn’t just the big things, say like my mom living alone for the first time in her life, but also the small, daily things that are new are also hard. I think of my brother taking my mom to the gas station to show her how to fill the gas tank in the car (my mom’s friend avoided self-service gas stations and drove 30 km to a small town with a full-service gas station!)

Vulnerability ++

What adds complexity to the many firsts is also the vulnerability that comes or can come with aging. For my mom, it was the further vulnerability that came with having macular degeneration. Add that to the experience of new firsts. Don’t get me wrong. My mom was anything but frail. She was fiercely independent, strong, and had a razor-sharp mind. The macular degeneration was her particular vulnerability. Most of our parents will have some additional vulnerability, whether related to physical, mental or cognitive health, or social and economic vulnerabilities. Another new first for my mom, as is the case for many older adults, was greater economic vulnerability with the loss of my dad’s monthly pensions.

Helpful strategy

How can you support your parent as they experience these new firsts?  Brené Brown to the rescue, again. When facing these FFTs, Brown offers the following strategy: name it, normalize it and reality check expectations.

Naming it is exactly that- naming what the new firsts are.

Normalizing it is about putting the new firsts into perspective.  They are hard, scary and in Brown’s words, they are ”going to suck”.  It is also about putting it into perspective- recognizing that we won’t always feel this way.

Brown reminds us that staying with a new first while feeling unsure and uncertain is the foundation of bravery, of courage. I absolutely love this wisdom.  I have often thought we don’t give enough credit or recognition to both the difficulty and strength required to process this significant experience.

Finally, reality checking expectations is about not setting ourselves up for shame or disaster. Your parent may not have history or experience to draw on to help them get through this part. Its probably harder and scarier than either you or your parent thought. The other complicating factor is that when we are grieving, we are not functioning at 100%. Obviously these are not the best conditions for learning something new.

Knowing this about new firsts can help with empathy for your surviving parent. Empathy is connection and this is the best thing you can offer your mom or dad at this time. As an adult child, you can also apply it to the new firsts you are also experiencing with the loss of your parent).

Changed forever

When someone we love dies, we don’t move through it. We don’t “recover” . We don’t return to a pre-loss normal. Pointedly, the idea that “closure” even exists has been critiqued as outrageous. While we resume life, and it can look like things are back to “normal” from the outside, we are changed internally. That is how significant it is. At best, then, one integrates this loss while facing and eventually moving through the many new firsts.

What new firsts has your surviving parent had to face? We would love to hear from you.


2 thoughts on “When one of your parents dies: facing the firsts

  1. I just read your post, I am a recent widow and the first that I had to deal with was our Anniversary. On September 21, it would have been our 57th. Next first will be Thanksgiving etc.

    • Hi Anne. Thanks for sharing. Wow….married for 56 years! I completely appreciate the difficulty of having to deal with what would have been your 57th. And indeed, Thanksgiving will be next. And to add to these firsts, it is grieving through this pandemic. Thanks again for sharing.

      Take good care, Jane

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