Bereaved parents of adult children
Written by listed counsellor/psychotherapist: Siobhan Toner MBACP
12th February, 20170 Comments
There has been a lot of media attention lately on the subject of bereaved parents and ways to support them, but the focus has been on those who are parents of babies or children. There is another group of parents not getting as much acknowledgement, those who children are adults.
It doesn’t make it any easier to lose a child later in life, it is still as painful and bewildering for this group of parents. They may have other considerations to deal with as well, for example, a grandchild who have lost their parent. This may mean they put their feelings down to “stay strong” and support their grandchildren emotionally. They may even have to end up being the primary caregiver depending on the situation that the family is in.
There may also be a lot of history to be processed and they run the risk of getting stuck into “what ifs”. What if I did this differently, or that. The weight of their history can become overwhelming.
So how can they be supported?
In many ways, it is the same as anyone who is dealing with a bereavement but you have to particularly respect to the fact they have lost their child. What is going to be really damaging to them would be “well at least you had x number of years with them”.
Don’t assume that your bereavements are anything like theirs. Thankfully most parents are not in the position where they outlive their children. If you have been through it, the chances are you already know from your own experience all of these things.
The best things to keep in mind is one simple guideline: never assume, just be there.
Instead of statements like “You must be/you must feel…” simply ask how they are. They will tell you what they are able to say at the time. It may not be much. Never say things like “you will get over it” or “you will never get over it”.
You may not see their grief, but don’t assume it isn’t there. While you may also be grieving, don’t assume they want to hear about it. Having to try and support you is not necessarily going to be something they can cope with.
Your opinions are not required unless asked for. While you may think it will be helpful to tell the person how the funeral should be, or what to do about the grandchild or any other topic, don’t assume they are needed. Offering yourself as a sounding board for the person to talk through all the pros and cons of the many decisions they have to make without judgment will be much more helpful.
They may not be able to talk about the child they have lost. Don’t assume this means they will never want to talk, or that they don’t want company now. The best support people can give each other is just being with them. Being present, even if you are in silence or talking about trivial things tells them they are not alone and that they are cared for.
They may not be behaving how you imagine you would in the same situation. They still have to eat, so maybe shopping and cooking or doing the cleaning and laundry as normal. A lot of these things are necessary to continue functioning and there is also comfort in them. There is a reason why people bring food to bereaved people, it’s because it’s a useful practical way to help without demanding anything of them.
Offering help can be tricky. Being specific in your offer is probably the best, e.g. “I’m going to come and do your ironing today” or “I’ve made you a pie. I will put it in the freezer for when you need it”. However, be aware that what you are offering may not be required. Make sure the person has a way to refuse it and don’t be offended if they do. For example, if you say, “I will come and spend tomorrow afternoon with you as it’s the only time I have free” they may have plans already such as visiting the undertakers. This is going to put them in an uncomfortable position.
A really useful thing to do to help is telling other people what’s happened. Let the bereaved person know you are willing to do that and ask who you can ring. Think about friends you have in common. This means they are not in the position of having to repeat what’s happened to lots of people.
While the subject of money can be sensitive, don’t assume it is not a worry. There may not be any money put by for a funeral so the costs will be unexpected and very high. Is there any way you can help with this? It’s better to offer sensitively and not be needed that to keep quiet and leave the person to worry about this as well.
And finally, don’t assume that someone else is taking care of them and giving them the support they need when you are not. Never assume this, if you want to support them, be with them.
About the author
I'm a person centred counsellor who works in private practice face to face and online and I am a registered member of the BACP. I also work as a school counsellor in an inner London secondary school.
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