“I still feel betrayed that he wasn’t there for me when my mother died. I really needed him, and he abandoned me. I don’t know if I can forget that.” My client was explaining why she felt so disconnected from her husband. She acknowledged that they had created a pattern of increasing emotional distance throughout their marriage, but when her mother died and she really needed his support, he stayed emotionally distant. She felt more alone. “I mean, if he can’t even comfort me when I just lost my mother, why am I even married?”
Losing a parent to death is one of the most common loss transitions people experience, which is partly why it is often minimized by a spouse or the population at large. Though common, the loss still engenders increased risk for substance use, and various physical and mental health challenges. Because the marital relationship is so proximal to the intergenerational relationship, the marriage is almost always somehow impacted by the death of a parent.
The good news is that a marital relationship is an ideal context for a partner to support another during this difficult time, and is an opportunity for deepened emotional responsiveness and bonding.
However, it’s not uncommon for me to hear a spouse identify a parent’s death as a time point at which he/she felt abandoned and unsupported by a spouse. In my experience, this usually happens because the marriage is already distressed and disconnected to begin with, or the spouse doesn’t know how to help and can be confused by the intensity of emotion or feel helpless about how to be supportive.
Losing a parent commonly creates a time of high emotional need. The emotional need may be exacerbated by collateral stressors, such as caring for a remaining parent or dealing with a parent’s estate.
The high emotional need combined with a partner’s confusion about how to help can turn into withdrawal, which can leave the bereaved spouse feeling alone. It’s the perfect storm for an attachment injury, in which a spouse expects a partner to be supportive, but feels betrayed by absence or seeming nonchalance. The withdrawal is not always intentional but may be a PERCEIVED lack of support simply because the support partner is clueless about how intense the emotional need is. Bereaved partners aren’t always clear and explicit in their needs. In these events, a parent’s death can directly generate marital strain. The result may be diminished trust and marital quality.
In short, the death of a parent can elicit responses that either facilitate stronger emotional connection or trigger disappointment in empathic support.
If you haven’t lost a parent, you may not realize how devastating it can feel.
I lost my mother very unexpectedly almost a decade ago. I was unprepared for the emotional upheaval. Even though I was in my early 40’s and knew my parents were aging, the stroke which led to her death took me completely by surprise. Sure, she had some health problems, but she looked great for her age, kept weight off easier than I did, and her mother had lived to age 90 with seemingly worse health issues. Besides that, my mother was fairly feisty—the type that you imagine putting up a fight with death, which in a way I guess she did via her 6-week coma.
I took it hard. The world felt dark. Everywhere I went, I would think, “How can these people just carry on normally when my world has fallen apart?” I felt sick. My mother was my most important support person next to my husband. I talked to her on the phone frequently. After she died, I kept reaching for the phone to process my emotional pain with the person with whom I usually processed it, only to realize she wasn’t there, sending me into another crying jag. Then, I would hear her pragmatic voice ringing in my head, “Well, don’t cry about it—you’re just going to give yourself a headache.” I really felt like I had nowhere to turn. My husband was as supportive as a husband could be, but he wasn’t my mom. Research indicates that an adult daughter losing a mother is often the most devastating loss when it comes to adults losing parents; of course, this would be expectedly moderated by the relationship quality of the parent/child relationship.
I had never experienced that combination of emotions before. It was any loss I ever had on steroids, and in fact, it seemed as if the loss rubbed the raw spots of any previous significant losses, so my sadness exponentially increased.
I had these textbook reactions for months:
- Disorientation and confusion. I felt scattered, like I couldn’t make sense out of anything. I kept feeling like I was in a dream. I had incoherent thoughts.
- Inability to focus. This was so interesting to me because I’m a pianist and an organist—I know how to achieve singular focus; but, my thoughts just raced and I was unusually distractible.
- Intense sadness and teariness, which could be triggered at any time.
- Depression and social withdrawal. I had no desire to do anything. I had to drag myself to work and hosting play group at my house when it was my turn felt—HARD.
- Fatigue. With the depression was a physical AND mental fatigue.
- Heaviness. Some people might think this should go with depression and/or fatigue, but it was different—I just felt smothering physical heaviness and emotional heaviness.
- Guilt and regret. In my case, I felt terrible because I didn’t talk to my mom on the phone right after she had a stroke before she slipped into a coma, because I thought the doctors would fix it since she got to the hospital early. I didn’t want to bug her until she felt better. Except, she slid into her coma and never came back. People self-flagellate over what they “woulda, coulda, shoulda,” done.
- Anger. This was also surprising because I usually feel collaborative with physicians and could reason myself through emotions. I was angry at the doctors who prescribed a medication that facilitated her death; I felt uncommon rage in the hospital when the neurosurgeon seemed cold and cavalier. I can’t remember wanting to punch someone in the face before. I knew it was irrational; I knew he was just doing his job and that we were just one more family with someone in a coma, but it felt cruel to me that to him we were just another number, and his explanation for the likely outcome was so callous and emotionless. I felt dismissed and unseen and insignificant. I said nothing, but I smoldered inside. I mentally rehearsed what I wanted to say, which was, “With some of the money you’re making profiting from my lifetime tragedy, why don’t you register for a course on gaining some #$%#@ compassion, you arrogant, insensitive #$%@?!” (Sorry if that sounds harsh, but that’s how strong the emotions were).
- Physical pain in my chest. I felt like an elephant was standing on my chest, making it hard for me to breathe. I would try to run and end up walking because I couldn’t get enough air—and I was a runner, so this was unusual. I can remember struggling to take deep breaths, like when I was 9 months pregnant.
- Loss of appetite. I had to force myself to eat. I had no appetite for months.
- Sleep disruption. I had difficulty with ruminating when I went to bed at night.
Most of my clients have reported experiencing some or all of these reactions. I don’t generally love using the stages of grief as a guideline for grieving because it’s so unpredictable. People expect grieving to follow a linear path through the stages when grief is actually complex and unique to each individual, so it can look like anything. At times, partners using these grief stages as a guideline ineffectively judge their spouses for not grieving in the “expected” pattern.
Things for non-bereaved spouses to understand are:
- Intense and shifting emotions are the norm. As described above, people routinely have an unprecedented mixture of emotions, varying in intensity.
- Pain. Pain. Pain. I felt diffuse pain emotionally and physically. The only relief I could get was when I was working or running. I started running for 2-3 hours a day, because running pain felt better than grieving pain. I lost so much weight that people started asking if I was sick or had cancer.
- Triggers can be anywhere at any time. I remember bursting into tears while cleaning out my daughter’s closet and finding a blessing dress my mother made using leftover fabric from making my wedding dress. Ditto on the Halloween costumes she had sewn for her and sweaters she had knit for me.
- Holidays and seasons can be especially hard. My mom descended into a coma on Easter and was buried the day before Mother’s Day. Every year, those holidays are laced with the pain of her highlighted absence.
- The living but bereaved parent may also be less accessible. My father, a man I had never seen depressed, became a shell of himself. I would call him to talk and hang up and cry to my husband, “That’s not my father. I’ve lost them both. Both my parents are gone.” He just wanted to be with her and was trying to cope himself.
- Parents usually fill a unique role that can’t be replaced by another individual. Research shows that a daughter losing a mother can be particularly painful. I only had one mother, and no one else filled that role, including my beloved father.
- The loss can trigger other loss issues. It seemed like every relational or personal loss of mine came bubbling to the surface. I had a chain reaction of grief-related memories, catapulting me deeper into despair. The best way to explain it is that I felt like I was drowning in a sea of grief and had no way to come up for air.
- Fear and anxiety can increase. In essence, the world can feel like a scarier place with more uncertainty. Security is diminished.
- If the relationship was strained, grief can be more complex and difficult. After my mom died, I attended a training with marriage expert, John Gottman, who explained that he was crying after his father’s death and his friend said, “My father died and I didn’t shed a tear.” His point was that crying is one sign that the relationship was cherished, and if the relationship is damaged, grieving is more challenging.
- The relationship with the living parent may change. This can heighten unpredictability.
- The loss can elicit new feelings about one’s mortality and life’s meaning. This change may affect behaviors.
- If the loss is the second of two parents, feelings of loneliness can be unprecedented. I don’t know how to explain the feeling when my father also died because I hadn’t experienced it before, but it was definitely tinged with existential dread and an awareness that the only two people who really loved me unconditionally were gone.
- Positive events can have triggers. Any time something good happened in my life, like my son going to India on a church mission, a son giving the valedictory address at graduation, a son being the all-state musician in his category, a son gaining admittance to dental school, my PhD graduation, etc. those events were all negatively colored with the sadness of my parents’ absences. Any time something good happened to me, I would think, “The only two people who might really care about this are gone, so who cares?”
- Gender can have an impact. Fathers and mothers often serve separate functions and can impact different gendered children in different ways.
- Wives may be more emotionally responsive to husbands than vice versa and wives more frequently turn to others for support. In other words, husbands can usually get support from spouses, but wives often don’t, creating emotional injury in the marriage.
- Everyone experiences loss differently. Don’t have expectations nor compare. EVER.
- A spouse who hasn’t lost parents to death or who experienced grieving differently may be very confused (and scared) at how deep the emotions can be for the bereaved.
- If a parent died unexpectedly, it can be experienced more intensely than a situation in which the death was expected or unsurprising. I felt far worse when my mom died unexpectedly than when I knew my father had 9 days to live, even though that was still painful. I could plan and prepare.
- It’s a myth that grieving ends. Most of the time, grieving decreases in intensity over time but doesn’t disappear completely. There can be lifetime sporadic triggers.
- In general, the world at large doesn’t support grieving people. The repeated message is, “Stop doing that around me–you’re making me uncomfortable.” That’s another reason it’s so important to have a spouse’s support.
How to help—what does empathic support look like?
- Focus on comfort, not on fixing it. Just being with a partner matters, and comfort doesn’t require words.
- Reassure your spouse that you are there for them REPEATEDLY for as long as they need.
- Share your own positive memories about your spouse’s parent. My husband’s favorite memory of my mom was watching her march out to the street (all 110 pounds of her) to singlehandedly take on a construction crew for the way they were managing the project just beyond her driveway. His laughing about it cheered me momentarily. He continually brought up positive memories of her, which felt validating, like he was on my team.
- Ask your spouse about their favorite memories and what they learned from the deceased parent.
- Ask your spouse how they would like to honor the parent’s memory.
- Be aware that if you haven’t lost a parent, it is likely that you are underestimating the loss. As supportive as my own husband is, I still don’t think he has a clue what it feels like to lose a parent.
- Expect repetition. Your spouse may need to talk about the same things over and over to gain new meaning and integrate the loss.
- Suggest and support grieving rituals. Small, predictable ways to honor a deceased parent can be helpful–visiting gravesites, having a certain time of the day to share memories–really anything with predictable space for expressing grief.
What does empathic support NOT look like?
- Avoidance. Some partners keep their distance from the emotions.
- Walking away from tears or strong expressions of sadness.
- Preaching doctrines of the after-life to discourage grief. Even if I believed that my parents existed beyond mortality, I still missed their presence and felt the absence palpably.
- Criticizing your partner for not grieving fast enough or for not being functional fast enough, like “Everyone goes through this—shouldn’t you be feeling better by now?”
- Minimizing or telling your partner why he/she shouldn’t be that upset, like “You didn’t even get along with your dad most of the time. Why are you so upset?”
- Comparing, like, “I wasn’t this upset when my mom died, what is wrong with you?” Every loss is different.
- Getting angry or frustrated that a spouse is having a grieving episode AGAIN.
Over all, supporting a spouse whose parent has passed away can be a way to achieve more emotional security in a marriage. In fact, with the death of parents comes the opportunity to attach more enduringly to a spouse.
The last conversation I had with my father was one in which I believe he intentionally turned me toward my husband. My father knew I had a mercurial tendency toward brooding and discontent. “What am I going to do without you, dad?” I sobbed. The last thing he said to me was, “I want you to remember that you have everything you need to be happy. You have a husband who loves you. You have a beautiful family. Be happy. You’re so beautiful when you smile.” Hearing those last six words, which he had repeated to me hundreds of times in my lifetime, made me cry harder. Even as I read this, the memory is bringing up tears. I have tried so hard to be more appreciative of my relationships, which can be one way of honoring my father’s legacy.
When I’m flooded with this now familiar sadness, I can approach my husband with a quaking voice, “I miss my dad,” and my husband will give me a hug and say, “I’m sorry, honey. I miss your dad, too. He was a uniquely great man.” He’ll be responsive even though I’ve approached him a myriad of times.
And that kind of predictability in comfort is how it’s done.
The Dance of Closeness-Distance in Couple Relationships After the Death of a Parent (2006) by Rosenblatt, P. C. & Barner, J. R. in Omega, 53(4), 277-293.
The Influence of Intergenerational Relationships on Marital Quality Following the Death of a Parent in Adulthood (2014) by Stokes, J. E. in Journal of Social and Personal Relationships, 33(1), 3-22.
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