11 Simple Rules On What To Do When Your Parent Dies

Unfortunately, I don’t have a magical secret to healing. I wish I did. Still, what I can do is let you know what I’ve learned since 2002.
Publish date:
November 21, 2012
death, grieving

I turned 20 years old this year, and with that birthday came the 10th anniversary of my father’s death. This past decade has given me plenty of space and time to orchestrate my thoughts about losing a parent.

Unfortunately, I don’t have a magical secret to healing. I wish I did. Still, what I can do is let you know what I’ve learned since 2002. I’m going to speak in terms of losing a parent, but, really, almost everything I say can apply to the loss of anyone you love.

If you’re newly mourning a loss, I know how raw your heart feels right now. I know it feels like you’ve swallowed gasoline followed by a match. I promise it will pass. It takes time, and I’m not sure I understand death any more clearly at 20 than I did at 10, but it gets easier to breathe.

The death of a parent is like surviving a bullet wound. That metal piece of nothingness may live lodged in your body for the rest of your life -- but, sooner than you imagine, you will only feel it when twisting your body at certain angles.

Until then, I have a few things that might help. But I’m not making any promises.

1. Write down everything you remember about the person.

Everything. Things that seem insignificant. Things as weird as describing the exact tones in their eyes. Funny things they said. Movies you saw together and both of your thoughts on them. Seriously, everything. I’m sorry to say it, but one day you won’t remember a lot of it without those records. They will be invaluable to you. Even the weird things you can’t imagine ever caring about. One day, you will panic because you can’t remember what their favorite dessert was, until you remember that you have it written down.

2. Don’t keep all their crap, definitely not all their clothes.

It’s just not healthy, I promise. Keep select, meaningful things. A shirt of theirs is always nice to wear. That seems creepy, but it’s not. Don’t develop a shrine to them, a preserved bedroom, a place at the table. If that helps at first, by all means -- but you don’t want to be stuck. Let me tell you, it’s easy to become stuck outside of reality.

3. Don’t become too attached to smells.

It’s really comforting to realize certain things still smell exactly like that person, but be prepared for that smell to fade, probably sooner rather than later. There is no way to preserve their smell. Please accept that now. I’ve tried. Also, if you smell something too often, it will lose all its meaning. If there is a shampoo or perfume they used, and that smell is going to bring you comfort, smell it sparingly. Trust me.

4. Do ask family members questions about the person.

Ask for stories you’ve never heard. Ask about how they were as a child. Ask about their favorite things. Ask for pictures you’ve never seen. Ask for contact info of distant relatives. Write all this stuff down, too. You never know when the only people who have first-hand accounts of their childhood will pass away too.

5. Last words are meaningless.

I promise you they are. You said everything you needed to. Again, I can promise that. They knew you never meant it when you said that you hated them, even if that was the last thing they heard shouting from your mouth before they went to the hospital.

Similarly, it’s okay that you weren’t at the hospital. The kind of love that death brings light to transcends physicality. I don’t mean that in a spiritual way, either. When someone is dying, love is no longer physical. Love is something they feel as if it were a firework exploding inside of them. You die happy -- honestly, besides everything else, that’s just science.

There will always be one more “I love you” that could have been said. Don’t feel like you didn’t say it enough.

6. Don’t think it’s weird if you’re not crying.

I didn’t cry at my dad’s funeral. In fact, I faked crying. I asked my aunt for a tissue to dab my dry face with.

7. Be extremely angry if you need to be.

What happened isn’t fair, it never will be fair, and you’re allowed to recognize that. Scream, break something, scream more -- for real, scream. It’s okay be angry at the person who passed, as well. Especially if you’re young, especially if it was “preventable.” It’s okay. It’s normal. Don’t bottle up anger. That’s how you have catatonic-like breakdowns in public.

8. It’s okay to feel relief when someone has died.

This can be for a number of reasons. Whatever the reason, it’s okay.

9. Enter into counseling or therapy if you have the means.

It will save you a lot of time (and money) later in life. No matter how well you and everyone around you thinks you’re doing, death is trauma. Your body is not convinced of how well you’ve gotten back on your feet. If money is an issue, look up free group therapy in your area for grief and loss. In big cities, this will be easier. If you’re in school, there are free counselors and groups. If the death was related to addiction, there’s Al-Anon to consider. There are so many options. Please take advantage of them if that is the only thing you do.

10. Now might be the time to rescue a cat.

This is not just because I love cats. If you’ve lost a parent and live alone, you need someone there. A cat is someone. Or a dog. Dogs are more work though. A cat will just love you and be funny, and all you need is food and a litter box. They will become your best friend.

11. Don’t feel bad taking your friends up on their offers.

They sure as fuck do not know how to act. They are so scared of saying something wrong. Trust me, they really want to do something, they just don’t know what is okay. If they offer to come over, bring you groceries, walk the dog, cover your shift, go somewhere with you, watch movies with you, hang out for 72 hours straight, visit the cemetery with you -- take them up on it if you want to. They are offering because they care. Don’t feel bad. You are not inconveniencing them.

No matter what may come, remember you are more resilient than you think. You will come out the other end. You will feel happy again. You will love again. You will be able to write articles like this one without even tearing up.

When it hurts, even after 10 years, it will hurt just like the day you found out. Still, the beauty of healing will show its face in a moment that arrives between year two and three, maybe earlier, maybe later. You will begin to uncontrollably laugh as you pick up mail from Children International. They apparently didn’t get the memo that their letter was years too late, and their recipient was dead.

The only tears being shed in that moment will be of pure joy, because you will know your parent would have been laughing, too.