The Death of a Parent Affects Even Grown Children Psychologically and Physically

Grief is both real and measurable. Scientists now know that losing a parent changes us forever.

The death of a parent is one of the most emotional and universal human experiences. If a person doesn’t know what it’s like to deal with the loss of a father or mother, they most likely will one day. But just because the passing of a parent happens to almost everyone doesn’t make it any easier. The death of a parent is not just traumatic, it informs and changes their children biologically and psychologically. It can even make them sick.

“In the best-case scenario, the death of a parent is anticipated and there’s time for families to prepare, say their goodbyes, and surround themselves with support,” psychiatrist Dr. Nikole Benders-Hadi says. “In cases where a death is unexpected, such as with an acute illness or traumatic accident, adult children may remain in the denial and anger phases of the loss for extended periods of time…[leading to] diagnosis of Major Depressive Disorder or even PTSD, if trauma is involved.”

There’s no amount of data that can capture how distinctly painful and powerful this grief is. That said, there are a number of psychological and brain-imaging studies that demonstrate the magnitude of this loss. The posterior cingulate cortex, frontal cortex, and cerebellum are all brain regions mobilized during grief processing, research shows. These regions are involved in storing memories and dwelling on the past, but they’re also involved in regulating sleep and appetite.

In the short term, neurology assures us that loss will trigger physical distress. In the long-term, grief puts the entire body at risk. A handful of studies have found links between unresolved grief and hypertension, cardiac events, immune disorders, and even cancer. It is unclear why grief would trigger such dire physical conditions, but one theory is that a perpetually activated sympathetic nervous system (fight or flight response) can cause long-term genetic changes. These changes — less pre-programmed cell death, dampened immune responses — may be ideal when a bear is chasing you through the forest and you need all the healthy cells you can get. But this sort of cellular dysregulation is also how cancerous cells metastasize, unchecked. 

While the physical symptoms are relatively consistent, the psychological impacts are all but unpredictable. In the twelve months following the loss of a parent, the American Psychological Association’s Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders considers it healthy for adults who have lost their parents to experience a range of contradictory emotions, including sadness, anger, rage, anxiety, numbness, emptiness, guilt, remorse, and regret. It is normal to withdraw from friends and activities; it is normal to throw oneself into work.

As ever, context matters. Sudden, violent death puts survivors at higher risk of developing a grief disorder, and when an adult child has a fractured relationship with a parent, the death can be doubly painful — even if the bereaved shuts down and pretends not to feel the loss. “Coping is less stressful when adult children have time to anticipate parental death,” Omojola says. “Not being able to say goodbye contributes to feeling depressed and angry.” This may explain why studies have shown that young adults are more affected by parental loss than middle-aged adults. Presumably, their parents died unexpectedly, or at least earlier than average.

Gender, of both the parent and child, can especially influence the contours of the grief response.

Studies suggest that daughters have more intense grief responses than sons, but men who lose their parents may be slower to move on. “Males tend to show emotions less and compartmentalize more,” Carla Marie Manly, a clinical psychologist and author, told Fatherly. 

“These factors do affect the ability to accept and process grief.” Studies have also shownthat loss of a father is more associated with the loss of personal mastery — purpose, vision, belief, commitment, and knowing oneself. Losing a mother, on the other hand, elicits a more raw response. “Many people report feeling a greater sense of loss when a mother dies,” Manly says. “This can be attributed to the often close, nurturing nature of the mother-child relationship.”

At the same time, the differences between losing a father and a mother represent relatively weak trends. “Complicated bereavement can exist no matter which parent is lost,” Benders-Hadi says. “More often, it is dependent on the relationship and bond that existed with the parent.”

Grief becomes pathological, according to the DSM, when the bereaved are so overcome that they are unable to carry on with their lives.Preliminary studies suggest this occurs in about 1 percent of the healthy population, and about 10 percent of the population that had previously been diagnosed with a stress disorder. “A diagnosis of Adjustment Disorder is made within three months of the death if there is a ‘persistence of grief reactions’ exceeding what’s normal for the culture and the religion,” Omojola says. “In this situation, the grieving adult has severe challenges meeting social, occupational, and other expected, important life functions.” Even adults who are able to go to work and put on a brave face may be suffering a clinical condition if they remain preoccupied with the death, deny that their parent has died, or actively avoid reminders of their parents, indefinitely. This condition, known as Persistent Complex Bereavement Disorder, is a trickier diagnosis to pin down (the DSM labeled it a “condition for further study”).

Elisabeth Goldberg works with grieving adults as a relationship therapist in New York City, and she has seen the toll that long-term grieving can take on a marriage. Specifically, Goldberg suggests a (somewhat Freudian) link between losing a parent and cheating on a spouse. “I see many affairs as manifestations of unresolved grief about losing a parent,” Goldberg says. “The adult child stays in a state of disbelief, and rejects reality in many ways in order to feed the delusion that the parent is still alive. The grieving child needs a new attachment figure, that’s the psyche trying to reconcile the denial and grief. So rather than say, ‘My mother died,’ the grieving child can say, ‘While Mommy’s away, I will play with someone other than my spouse.’”

In more concrete — and dire — terms, unresolved grief can spiral into anxiety and depression. This is especially true when the parent dies by suicide, according to Lyn Morris, a licensed therapist and VP at Didi Hirsch Mental Health Services. “Adults who lose a parent to suicide often struggle with complex emotions such as guilt, anger, and feelings of abandonment and vulnerability,” she told Fatherly. Indeed a 2010 study out of Johns Hopkins University confirmed that losing a parent to suicide makes children more likely to die by suicide themselves.

How to cope in a healthy way remains an active area of scientific inquiry. Ross Grossman, a licensed therapist who specializes in adult grief, has identified several “main distorted thoughts” that infect our minds when we face adversity. Two of the most prominent are “I should be perfect” and “they should have treated me better” — and they tug in opposite directions. “These distorted thoughts can easily arise in the wake of a loved one’s death,” Grossman says.

When a son or daughter reflects on how he or she should have treated a deceased parent, “I should be perfect” thoughts tend to rise to the surface. Grossman’s patients often feel that they should have done more and, “because they didn’t do any or all of these things, they are low-down, dirty, awful, terrible human beings,” he says. “These kinds of thoughts, if left undisputed, usually result in a feeling of low self-worth, low self-esteem, shame, self-judgment, self-condemnation.”

On the opposite extreme, patients sometimes blame their deceased parents for not treating them properly, and never making amends. This is similarly unhealthy. “The usual result of this is deep resentment, anger, rage,” Grossman says. “They may have genuine, legitimate reasons to feel mistreated or abused. In these situations, it’s not always the death of the parent but the death of the possibility of reconciliation, of rapprochement and apology from the offending parent.”

“The possibility has died along with the person.”

In extreme cases, therapy may be the only way to get a grieving son or daughter back on his or her feet. But time, and an understanding spouse, can go a long way toward helping adults get through this unpleasant, yet ubiquitous, chapter in their lives. “Husbands can best support their wives by listening,” Manly says. “Men often feel helpless in the face of their wives’ emotions, and they want to fix the situation. A husband can do far more good by sitting with his wife, listening to her, holding her hand, taking her for walks, and — if she desires — visiting the burial site.” Via Fatherly (Health & Science / Psycology) by Joshua A. Krisch.

xoxo,

Janice

Advertisements

The Mistake I Made With My Grieving Friend

A good friend of mine lost her dad some years back. I found her sitting alone on a bench outside our workplace, not moving, just staring at the horizon. She was absolutely distraught and I didn’t know what to say to her. It’s so easy to say the wrong thing to someone who is grieving and vulnerable. So, I started talking about how I grew up without a father. I told her that my dad had drowned in a submarine when I was only 9 months old and I’d always mourned his loss, even though I’d never known him. I just wanted her to realize that she wasn’t alone, that I’d been through something similar and could understand how she felt.

But after I related this story, my friend looked at me and snapped, “Okay, Celeste, you win. You never had a dad, and I at least got to spend 30 years with mine. You had it worse. I guess I shouldn’t be so upset that my dad just died.”

I was stunned and mortified. My immediate reaction was to plead my case. “No, no, no,” I said, “that’s not what I’m saying at all. I just meant that I know how you feel.” And she answered, “No, Celeste, you don’t. You have no idea how I feel.”

She walked away and I stood there helplessly, watching her go and feeling like a jerk. I had totally failed my friend. I had wanted to comfort her, and instead, I’d made her feel worse. At that point, I still felt she misunderstood me. I thought she was in a fragile state and had lashed out at me unfairly when I was only trying to help.

But the truth is, she didn’t misunderstand me at all. She understood what was happening perhaps better than I did. When she began to share her raw emotions, I felt uncomfortable. I didn’t know what to say, so I defaulted to a subject with which I was comfortable: myself.

I may have been trying to empathize, at least on a conscious level, but what I really did was draw focus away from her anguish and turn the attention to me. She wanted to talk to me about her father, to tell me about the kind of man he was, so I could fully appreciate the magnitude of her loss. Instead, I asked her to stop for a moment and listen to my story about my dad’s tragic death.

From that day forward, I started to notice how often I responded to stories of loss and struggle with stories of my own experiences. My son would tell me about clashing with a kid in Boy Scouts, and I would talk about a girl I fell out with in college. When a co-worker got laid off, I told her about how much I struggled to find a job after I had been laid off years earlier. But when I began to pay a little more attention to how people responded to my attempts to empathize, I realized the effect of sharing my experiences was never as I intended. What all of these people needed was for me to hear them and acknowledge what they were going through. Instead, I forced them to listen to me and acknowledge me.

Sociologist Charles Derber describes this tendency to insert oneself into a conversation as “conversational narcissism.” It’s the desire to take over a conversation, to do most of the talking and to turn the focus of the exchange to yourself. It is often subtle and unconscious. Derber writes that conversational narcissism “is the key manifestation of the dominant attention-getting psychology in America. It occurs in informal conversations among friends, family and co-workers. The profusion of popular literature about listening and the etiquette of managing those who talk constantly about themselves suggests its pervasiveness in everyday life.” Derber describes two kinds of responses in conversations: a shift response and a support response. The first shifts attention back to yourself, and the second supports the other person’s comment. Here is a simple illustration:

Shift Response
Mary: I’m so busy right now.
Tim: Me too. I’m totally overwhelmed.

Support Response
Mary: I’m so busy right now.
Tim: Why? What do you have to get done?

Here’s another example:

Shift Response
Karen: I need new shoes.
Mark: Me too. These things are falling apart.

Support Response
Karen: I need new shoes.
Mark: Oh yeah? What kind are you thinking about?

Shift responses are a hallmark of conversational narcissism. They help you turn the focus constantly back to yourself. But a support response encourages the other person to continue their story. These days, I try to be more aware of my instinct to share stories and talk about myself. I try to ask questions that encourage the other person to continue. I’ve also made a conscious effort to listen more and talk less.

Recently, I had a long conversation with a friend of mine who was going through a divorce. We spent almost 40 minutes on the phone, and I barely said a word. At the end of our call, she said, “Thank you for your advice. You’ve really helped me work some things out.” The truth is, I hadn’t actually offered any advice; most of what I said was a version of “That sounds tough. I’m sorry this is happening to you.” She didn’t need advice or stories from me. She just needed to be heard. The author of We Need to Talk reveals how she learned to help — and not help — a friend with loss. This excerpt was taken from We Need to Talk: How to Have Conversations That Matter, by Celeste Headlee. Headlee is the host of the daily news show On Second Thought on Georgia Public Radio. Photo: Simone Golob/Getty Images. Via Huffpost Celeste HeadleeOprah.com

xxxx,

Janice

10 Things That Changed Me After the Death of a Parent

I don’t think there is anything that can prepare you to lose a parent. It is a larger blow in adulthood I believe, because you are at the point where you are actually friends with your mother or father. Their wisdom has finally sunk in and you know that all of the shit you rolled your eyes at as a teenager really was done out of love and probably saved your life a time or two.

I lost both of mine two years apart; my mother much unexpected and my father rather quickly after a cancer diagnosis. My mom was the one person who could see into my soul and could call me out in the most effective way. She taught me what humanity, empathy and generosity means. My father was the sarcastic realist in the house and one of the most forgiving people I have ever met. If you wanted it straight, with zero bullshit; just go ask my dad.

Grief runs its course and it comes in stages, but I was not prepared for it to never fully go away.

1 My phone is never more than 1 foot away from me at bedtime, because the last time I did that I missed the call that my mother died.

2 The very thought of my mother’s death, at times, made me physically ill for about six months after she died. I literally vomited.

3 Their deaths have at times ripped the remainder of our family apart. I did my best to honor their wishes and sometimes that made me the bad guy. The burden of that was immense, but I understood why I was chosen. It made me stronger as a person, so for that I am grateful.

4 I’m pissed that my son didn’t get to experience them as grandparents. I watched it five times before his birth and I feel robbed. He would have adored them and they him.

5 I would not trade my time with them for anything, but sometimes I think it would have been easier had you died when I was very young. The memories would be less.

6 Don’t bitch about your parents in front of me. You will get an earful about gratitude and appreciation. As a “Dead Parents Club” member, I would take your place in a heartbeat, so shut your mouth. Get some perspective on how truly fleeting life is.

7 It’s like being a widow — a “club” you never wanted to join. Where do I return this unwanted membership, please?

8 Other club members are really the only people who can truly understand what it does to a person. They just get it. There is no other way to explain it.

9 Life does go on, but there will be times even years later, you will still break down like it happened yesterday.

10 When you see your friends or even strangers with their mom or dad, you will sometimes be jealous. Envious of the lunch date they have. Downright pissed that your mom can’t plan your baby shower. Big life events are never ever the same again.

Lisa Schmidt is a Dating and Relationship coach in Detroit and the author of her own blog. She streams regularly on Periscope and is contributor for several online publications. Read via Huffpost. Relationship questions can also be sent to her directly Ask Lisa Here

xxx,

Janice