Dealing With the Cancer Death of a Parent

The death of a parent to cancer can come as a shock, even if your parent had been sick for a long time. It might feel unfair, especially if your parent was relatively young.

Your family may already have been overwhelmed by the illness itself. Whether you’ve been caring for your parent with cancer for a while or found out about the diagnosis only recently, you might be unprepared for your loss. Maybe you had hoped that the cancer could be cured.

Along the way, you may have switched roles to a caretaker for your mother or father. You’ve had to start grieving even before they died. This is called anticipatory grief.

Three Stages of Grief

Numbness. At first you will likely mark the days in a kind of shock. You will notice the first meal after they died, then the first day, the first week. But the death may not feel real just yet. You will be busy with funeral arrangements and supporting your surviving parent or siblings. Friends and family will visit and bring food and share memories. After that first week, they will go back to their own lives, and your childhood home will seem very quiet. This is when the new reality will start to sink in.

Confronting the loss. In the first year, you will start to deal with your loss. Tears can flow out of the blue. You might pick up the phone to call them, then remember that you can’t. You might think a lot about their illness and how they died. Or you think about the milestones in your life that your parent won’t see. You might hear in your head the jokes they might have cracked or compliments they might have given. Sometimes, this emotional bond can give you comfort, or it can trigger sadness.

Birthdays, anniversaries, and holidays are most difficult in the first year. You may not be in a mood to socialize. But it’s important to have close friends and family who can support you when your grief is sharp. Other days will feel normal. You aren’t being disloyal to your parent by feeling happy sometimes. It’s OK to take a break from grieving.

Accepting the loss. Your grief won’t go away after the first year. You may still mourn the future you might have had with your parent. But you’ll have fewer days when you feel deep sorrow. Birthdays and other milestones will still be tinged with sadness. But you will have more energy to get through them.

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Self-Care

As you move on with your life after your parent’s death, remember that everyone grieves differently. Don’t pressure yourself to get over the loss in a set amount of time.

Tend to yourself. Big emotions will wash over you for months after your loss. You may feel guilty about what you did or didn’t do during the illness. You may have regrets about your relationship with your parent. You may feel envious or cut off from people with two healthy parents. Make sure you sleep and eat well. Carry on with as much of your regular schedule as you can. Reach out to friends who can support you.

Scale back. In the first months of grief, you may be forgetful or disorganized. You may be restless or anxious. This can turn into an added source of guilt or shame at work or in your personal life. You may want to take time off from your job or school to help your surviving parent. It’s OK to say no to new responsibilities at work or at home.

Resist big changes. Try not to make any major life changes in the first year after your parent dies. Some people rush into marriages or get divorced during this time. Or quit their jobs or drop out of school. But these important decisions are best made when your home base is stable. Wait until your life gets back to steady footing before you make any big leaps.

WebMD Medical Reference Reviewed by Nayana Ambardekar, MD on July 25, 2018

Sources

SOURCES:

Jackson, V., Ryan, D., and Seaton, M. Living with Cancer: A Step-by-Step Guide for Coping Medically and Emotionally with a Serious Diagnosis, Johns Hopkins University Press, April 21, 2017.

Molly Howes, clinical psychologist who specializes in working with adolescents and adults whose parents have died of cancer.

American Cancer Society: “Coping with the death of a loved one: The Grieving Process.”

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