I became an orphan when I was 52 years old. Despite my age and professional experience, my father’s death changed me forever. People say it is like losing a part of yourself, but I felt like my anchor to my identity was what had been severed.
Shock, numbness, denial, anger, sadness, and despair are feelings that most people cycle through after the loss of a loved one. These emotions can persist in varying degrees for many months afterward. Most people experience these feelings in stages that occur in no particular order but diminish in intensity over time. My personal fog didn’t seem to lift until more than six months later. No matter how long it takes, many people around you get impatient for you to feel better sooner than you do. Some people continue experiencing intense emotions for years after the loss, and the sustained grief can have cognitive, social, cultural, and spiritual effects.
Studies show that losing a parent can lead to increased risks for long-term emotional and mental health issues such as depression, anxiety, and substance abuse. This is especially true if a person doesn’t receive ample support during their bereavement and, if they are young when the parent dies, stable and consistent surrogate parenting. Losing a parent in childhood significantly raises the risk of developing mental health issues. According to statistics, about one in 20 children aged 15 and younger have suffered the loss of one or both parents.
Another factor that influences the development of mental health issues is the person's perception of their closeness to the deceased and how much the loss changes their lives. This is not to say that people don’t experience feelings of grief if they lose a parent they didn’t feel close to, get along with or know well—the loss may still be felt quite deeply.
Survey data on long-term effects of parental loss indicate that filial bereavement can impact both mental and physical health, with men being more likely to report physical health issues. Data also show that gender influences the impact of parental death—men who lose their father appear to experience the loss more keenly than daughters, while women who lose their mother appear to be more deeply impacted than sons.
Research into attachment theory and bereavement theory has led to the development of grief interventions that help people heal from a loss. Grief interventions are most effective when they focus on the bereaved individual’s personal resources and capacity for enhancing their own resilience, as well as on palliative care from primary care providers and family members in the months after the loss. When a person experiences complicated grief or sustained grief—grief that persists long after the months following a death—additional interventions and evaluation for mental health issues may be warranted.
Since everyone processes loss in their own way and on their own individual timeline, it can be difficult to recognize when and if feelings of loss have developed into complicated grief. Also known as persistent complex bereavement disorder, this more protracted form of grief is usually marked by emotions that are so severe, painful and long-lasting that a person cannot seem to accept the loss and move forward to resume life, even many months or years afterward.
The stages of recovery after the death of a loved one typically involve allowing yourself to experience the pain of your loss, which gradually gives way to accepting the reality of it and finding a way to move forward. The healing process also involves finding it possible, in time, to enjoy other relationships. If you continue to experience a heightened focus on reminders of your loved one that triggers intense pain, grief counseling can be helpful.
A grief counselor provides support as people talk about their sadness, frustration or anger and learn to cope with and process these feelings. Family counseling can also help. The death of a parent can revive past hurts or resentments or alter family relationships and dynamics. A family therapist can help address old and new conflicts, and teach constructive ways to heal relationships and resolve problems.
There are also grief support groups that can help people feel less isolated in their loss. These groups can be found in the local community as well as online via grief support organizations and forums. Complicated grief often results in attempts to self-medicate with drugs or alcohol. In these cases, both issues can be addressed simultaneously at a dual diagnosis drug rehab center.
Self-care is also important after a loss. You will be better able to process your grief if you don’t hide from your feelings, thoughts, and memories. Take good care of yourself by eating well, getting enough sleep, exercising and taking time to grieve and rest. Be patient with yourself and your grieving loved ones. Grieving is a personal process but you don’t have to go through it alone.
David Sack, MD, is board certified in psychiatry, addiction psychiatry, and addiction medicine. As chief medical officer of Elements Behavioral Health, he oversees a network of addiction and dual diagnosis treatment centers that includes Promises Treatment Centers and The Right Step in Texas.