Grief Week 3: The Psychological and Physical Effects of Losing a Parent
Scientists now know that losing a parent, no matter what your age, can change us forever. One of the most emotionally difficult experiences to go through is losing someone you love, mostly a parent. This is a grief-filled and traumatic event that will alter children, no matter their age. Changes in their physical bodies as well as psychologically can be distressing and painful. This single event, whether quick or drawn out will transform the children for the rest of their life.
Research has shown that there will be physical distress; sobbing, tension, headaches, stomachaches, insomnia, depression, and even anxiety and worry. Another handful of studies have found links between grief that is unresolved and a spike in hypertension, cardiac events, immune disorders and cancer. One theory is that a body that is continuously in the fight-or-flight stage can cause long-term genetic changes. These changes can affect and diminish our immunity. When our sympathetic nervous system (Stress) is triggered and triggered high for long periods of time it can start cellular dysregulation and this is how cancerous cells metastasize.
The physical symptoms can be pretty consistent, no matter the age of the child suffering the loss. The psychological impacts are unpredictable. In the year following a parent’s death, it is considered healthy for adults to experience a range of emotions including; sadness, anger, rage, regret, numbness, anxiety, remorse, emptiness, or guilt. It is normal to withdraw from social activities with friends or other family members as well as putting all your attention into your work or a hobby. Each person will experience their grief differently; however, there have been some brain imaging studies that have looked at how the magnitude of the loss of a parent can affect the brain. During the grieving period, the posterior cingulate cortex, frontal cortex and the cerebellum are all activated. These regions are used in storing memories and regulating sleep and appetite.
The best-case scenario is that the death of a parent is anticipated due to life threatening illness, or in the case with my mom, she is battling cancer and now has congenital heart disease. Her heart will take her before the cancer does. She has chosen to for-go the open heart surgery at 73 years young and asked for hospice to be set up at her home. My family and friends are very fortunate to be able to spend some amazing quality time with her, remembering past vacations and family fun so she can have peace of mind that we will all be okay when she leaves. I’m not going to sugar coat it, this is excruciating watching her fade away. She is ready to go and is at peace in dying, but her body keeps ticking away and forcing her to have labored breathing and fluttered thoughts of things she isn’t capable of doing anymore. It is becoming a whole new lesson in compassion and patience for us.
In situations where there was a traumatic event like an accident or a fast moving cancer, many adult children may be in denial and stay in the anger and rage phases looking to blame anyone they can, instead of just accepting and appreciating what happened to their loved one. In some of these cases, there may be a rise in major depressive disorder, PTSD or heightened anxiety disorders as the mind is trying to piece together what happened.
If the loved one was in a sudden and violent death, it can put the survivors at a much higher risk for developing grief disorders, depression, anxiety or PTSD. This can also affect an adult child who had a broken relationship with their parent. They may shut down and internalize things that happened between them or feel guilt and shame.
When adult children have time to anticipate a parent’s death, coping will be less stressful. By having the ability to say good-bye, reminisce about their favorite parts of growing up and the great things about their parent with their parent it helps give them a sense of closure. Not being able to do this will contribute to feelings of depression, anger, frustration and guilt or shame. Studies have shown that middle-aged adults were less affected by a death of a parent versus young adults whose parent may have died unexpectedly or earlier than normal.
Studies also show that the gender of the parent and child will have an influence on the grief response. They show that daughters have more intense grief than sons. The studies also showed that men who lose their parents are slower to move on. Males show less emotions and tend to compartmentalize more which can affect the grieving process.
Other studies have shown that the loss of a father can be linked to the loss of personal mastery, meaning life purpose, commitment, vision, believe and self-knowledge. Researchers say that losing a mother can elicit a more raw response in grief. The nurturing love between a mother and child is one of the most precious unconditional loves there is and can be rocked to the core when a mother passes.
According to the APA’s Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM) bereavement can be mixed depending on the relationship between the child and parent. If the bereaved are so overcome their grief can become pathological, making it hard to carry on with day to day life. In those with a stress disorder, it can happen about 10 percent of the time and only 1 percent of the time in a healthy population. If someone is still feeling persistent grief reactions three months after the death, a doctor may diagnose with an adjustment disorder, meaning the bereaved has sever challenges meeting social, occupational or other important life functions on a daily basis.
Even if the bereaved adult is able to go to work and put on a brave demeanor, he/she may suffer a clinical condition if they remain preoccupied with the death, deny that their parent passed away or avoids any type of reminder of their parent. This is known as persistent complex bereavement disorder and is tricky to diagnose. Any type of unresolved grief can spiral into anxiety and depression if not handled properly.
Licensed therapists are still researching the healthy ways to cope with the death of a parent. In the wake of a parental death there may be two distinct distorted thoughts: “I should be perfect” and “They should have treated me better” that can tug in opposite directions with the bereaved. These can be prevalent more when the parent died unexpectedly than if they were slowly going from cancer or another long illness. Some may think that they “should have done more and because they didn’t they are awful, terrible, nasty human beings for not being able to ‘save’ their loved one.” According to therapists, these negative and destructive thoughts, if left undisputed, can lead to low self-worth and low self-esteem, shame, judgement, guilt and self-condemnation.
The other extreme is that some bereaved blame their deceased parents for not treating them properly and not making amends prior to their death. This is also unhealthy and can result in deep resentment, anger, rage and blame. Usually, it is the death of the opportunity or possibility to reconcile and receive and apology from the parent that truly upsets the bereaved more than the actual death of the parent. In these cases, therapy may be the only option to get a grieving son or daughter back to normal day to day activities. Having a compassionate and understanding spouse, time and patience can help them get through this painful chapter in their lives. Therapists state that husbands who are supporting bereaving wives can best do so by listening and taking their wife to their parents’ burial site. Men will often feel helpless as they cannot “fix” this situation. The best thing to do is to hold compassion, love and patience for their wife. Hold her hand, go for walks and listen to her stories or memories.
In my case, I am very grateful that my mom’s doctors told my mom her diagnosis and she could prepare her friends and family for what is coming. Choosing to stay at home, with her family until she passes, offers us the opportunity to create some magical last moments with her. In working with her hospice care I have learned a lot about the process of end of life as well as how to prepare myself, my father, sister and my son.
I am also preparing my mom. She is ready to go and is patiently waiting for her heart to give out, which is agonizing as it is beating between 120-140 BPM every day/all day long. She is exhausted and lately she has been more and more confused. In knowing my mom, she has no regrets. She has lived a very generous life. Survived a stroke, hole in the heart, breast cancer and celebrated 50 years married to her soulmate. She has traveled all over the world and has create amazing friendships and memories. Like any normal human being, she has also held on to grudges from her past and I would like to help her to let those go, so she can go peacefully.
Part of the process of helping her stay calm and comfortable in this time includes some of the following:
Afternoon wheelchair walks
Sitting in the sun with her feet in the grass
Comfy blankets and candles
Meditation- especially the Ho'oponopono meditation.
One of my favorite stories is the one of how a group of criminally insane inmates were released after having this meditation offered to them every day. In simple terms this is a Hawaiian forgiveness prayer. There are four steps; Repentance, Forgiveness, Gratitude and Love. When these four forces work together it creates an amazing power. You start to repent for any grudges you may have been holding from years past or most recently. You are grateful for them, you forgive yourself or anyone else who may have harmed you and you allow love to surround you.
I have been using this with my mom before she goes to sleep each night. She now begs for it as she likes how it makes her calm down and prepare for sleep. I enjoy doing it just as much as she does and it helps me be able to do the same, whether it is old situations with my mom, or any subconscious thought from someone or some other place in my life. Here is a great link for you to review how and why it works: https://www.laughteronlineuniversity.com/hooponopono-4-simple-steps/
Don’t forget to also take care of your health and mental wellness. Continue to do your normal routine, as much as possible. Go to the gym, meet your friends, discuss what is happening with you and your loss. Take time each day for a little self-love; nap, daydream, journal, read a book, listen/dance to music, take a walk in nature. If you are finding that your bereavement is too much for you to handle and you are not able to do your normal day to day activities, consider reaching out for professional help. You are not weak for seeking help, instead you are brave and forward thinking for keeping your mental health a priority in your life.