When it comes to supporting someone who's grieving the loss of their parent, it can be hard to find the right words of comfort. Even if the death happened years ago, the subject might still feel too sensitive to approach with them.
However, the better we can try to be about communicating empathetically with people close to us whose parent has died, the more normalized grief can become. "Saying something to someone who is grieving is the right thing to do," says Rebecca Feinglos, a certified grief support specialist candidate and founder of GrieveLeave.com. "When we connect with our friends who have lost parents or parent-figures, whether their loss was recent or long ago, over Mother’s Day, Father’s Day — or any day, honestly — we recognize that grief is ongoing."
While certain holidays, their parent's birthday, or the anniversary of their parent's passing may be tough days for someone to get through, it's important to meet them where they actually are. "Check in on your friend before the holiday and ask them what would feel supportive or comforting during this time of year," says Ian Jackson, licensed mental health counselor and clinical director of Recovery Unplugged. "Having a safe space to share their feelings can be very helpful in processing the loss."
Instead of keeping quiet out of fear of saying the wrong thing, you can be thoughtful in your expression of support to your friend, family member, or colleague as they grieve the loss of their parent. Here is how the experts recommend reaching out compassionately.
Putting It Out There
Even if you've previously expressed your condolences for the loss of your loved one's parent, an occasional check-in is a kind thing to do — especially during those tough times of the year.
"A judgment- and assumption-free check-in on a friend who is grieving the death of a parent might look something like a phone call, a text message, or a card, saying, 'I’m thinking about your dad as we approach Father’s Day,' or 'You’re on my mind this Mother’s Day,'" Feinglos says. "These types of check-ins convey that you care about the griever and about their person, but it doesn’t put any burden on the griever that they should feel any particular way in their grief."
While you may be ready and willing to listen to anything your loved one wants to say about their late parent, keep in mind that they may also prefer not to share. "Every person will process their grief differently, so it's important to respect the boundaries of your friend," Jackson says. "It's also okay to let them take the lead on when and how much they want to share; being available to listen is often all that's needed, especially if they feel it's too soon for them to open up."
It's a good idea to keep your check-in brief, leaving the choice entirely up to the griever to reply. "It can also feel helpful to add a parenthetical to any message you send or any voicemail you leave that says something like, 'Don't worry about responding to this,'" says Feinglos.
And if they don't respond, don't take it personally or think that you did anything wrong. Give the griever their space, and once some time has passed (especially if the loss was recent), check in again to let them know you're still here to support however they're feeling.
Giving the Support They Need
For those who are open to talking about their late parent, there are many supportive things you can do to help honor them. If you didn't know their parent personally, asking questions about their favorite family traditions or special moments together can be a way to approach the topic — and if you did know them, you could initiate the conversation by sharing a memory of your own.
"Tell a story about their loved one," says Feinglos. "Learning a new story, or hearing an old one, can bring joy and help create space for the griever to share their feelings." Doing this can also help them feel that they are keeping their parent's spirit alive by recounting moments that make them smile.
If you want to do more, you can extend your support by giving back. "Do some good in honor of their loved one. If their loved one died of a specific disease, you can donate to research centers to support finding a cure for that disease in the future." Feinglos says. "You could run a race in their person’s honor. You could volunteer for a cause that meant a lot to their person during their lifetime."
Gifts can also be a nice gesture, especially if you're not able to be with them during this time. "You could send flowers or a plant to your friend, with a note that says 'Thinking of you,' or just sign your name — they’ll know why you sent them," says Feinglos.
Keep Normalizing Grief
Grief touches everyone's life at some point. Getting in touch with our own feelings of grief and supporting those who are going through the grieving process are vital steps to normalizing it in our society.
"We should also create meaningful opportunities for people to share their stories — whether through public speaking or smaller gatherings — so that others feel comfortable talking about their loved ones who have passed away," Jackson says. "Additionally, we should make sure that resources are available to those who need them, such as access to mental health professionals or support groups."
Letting someone know that you're open to talking about their parent and how they're handling their loss at this time is one of the most effective ways to break down the barriers.
"It might help us all feel a little less isolated and a little less lonely in our grief when we are more open to reaching out to one another to acknowledge losses when they happen and to speak up about our own feelings when we face loss," Feinglos says."It’ll make a world of difference."
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