Parents, Children and the Grief in Between.


By Sherry Russell, a grief specialist with ShareGrief.com

Mother's Day passed and now Father's Day is approaching. Frankly, I've always thought the day a woman gives birth to a child should be a Mother's Day. I can't truly think of a better reason to have a day in which a mother is remembered with goodies and lovely gestures for the anguished pain of plopping out a glob of humanity that will take her on the wildest ride of her life. For the child, the mother will become larger than life while wielding a stern lasso around that wild ride. A parent and a child forging a bond that will now and forever be the embodiment of the term love.

A parent is responsible for holding the family together. A parent makes us accountable. A parent with a nod can shame us into participating in family reunions as well as seemingly endless other types of family rituals. Yet, much time in this ever-changing relationship is spent wrestling with clinging wrapping tentacles each labeled with one disturbing emotion after another. Odd enough, the fight, the flight, and the bond of blood hold us together with unspoken grief and anxiety over growing pains and disconnecting snaps of reality. A parent always waiting for the near impossible to be achieved and the child striving to understand "why"?.

Many of us have to comb through our mind's labyrinth of memories on a day dedicated to a parent. Memories are our staunch companions. They give us comfort when a loved one is no longer in this physical plane with us. With memories we can choose what to remember, what to hold dear and what to let go. Many of us fortunate enough to have a living parent eagerly offer up gifts of appreciation, love and communication. Wishing one more time to receive the trumpeted award of approval. Some of our gifts are met with criticism or misunderstanding and some are more than thoroughly appreciated. Some parents are happy to know children remember them with a simple jester of a phone call or a specifically chosen card. Did you know that Mother's Day is the busiest day of the year for cemetery visits? Father's Day is busy but not overly so. Why is that? Is it that Mother's guilt surpasses death? I have to tell you, I have talked lately with so many adult children who are exasperated with a parent. I worry about this, since I'm a parent and don't want to ever be thought of as a nuisance or worse.

I worry about this because I hear about the break down in communication, the big bang of grief it brings, the fear it projects on other relationships, and the disastrous misery it causes. This is especially worrisome since more and more baby boomers are being faced with taking care of elderly parents. On the other hand many parents looking forward to retirement are now facing grown children returning home to the nest.

How can these loving nurturing relationships become so screwed up? How can parents cause adult children so much ruckus and pain? Is it pay back? Aren't parents supposed to be our soothing healing wands supporting us through life? How and why do children and parents learn to secretly loathe one another (all be it with a heavy dose of love) and think that's OK? How and why do parents and adult children irritate each other so much? All I know is this, a multitude of adult children are fearful for the decisions and the way their parents are living their lives. Now, if that isn't ironic, I don't know what is.

We hear time and time again about the gaps in generations and the lack of interaction that rises up like a mountain of dividership. A mountain the rises upward against the criticism fear and anger of those who brought us into this life. Odd, how bringing forth a life complicates your whole reason for being. The responsibility, the inescapable facing of the truth; the truth of you. Who are you really? What does your core stand for? What makes you tick? The never ending pressures and questioning all leading to strained relationships filled with differences in values, beliefs, ending in grief and pangs of loss of self. Strangely, all of these problems, all of these differences, all of these questions are from a foundation that was built with the deepest love imaginable. The love a parent has for their child and a child has for their parent. The parent and child bond is one of the longest lasting and most significant relationship one ever experiences.

Parenthood, who would have thought how complicated and intertwined. All that said, like the other side of midnight is the other side of being a parent. Dedicated unconditional love like you never dreamed. Children give arms, legs and a voice to this emotion called love.

As the children grow up they search for 'self'. They start to determine what they will stand for and what will hold meaning to them. This stresses the relationship and the parent many times is thrown into grief over the child's decisions, reactions and attitudes toward life. Parents grieve the death of their expectations. As parents, we all want certain things for our children. Many times the children want something totally different. Here are some ways to help.

First: be honest with yourself about your goals for a parent or a child

Second: realize and own what your feelings are. You have a right to feel the way you do but so does the parent.

Third: understand life was different for you then it was for the parent when growing up. What was acceptable behavior may be different today. The general family make up may be different today. Know that you're not necessarily right or wrong - you are just different. Agree to the differences.

Fourth: don't carry around grudges. What good are they? Do they solve anything at all? Rise above it and try to see the situation for what it really is. There is always your side of the story and their side of the story. Somewhere in between is the actual factual story.

Fifth: learn how to communicate without accusing. Don't start a sentence with "you". As soon as that happens the person on the receiving end will shut down. Most criticisms start out with "you did or you didn't". Learn to listen with out prejudging. Think it out before you talk. Set time outs to think before speaking.

Six: agree to disagree and set it aside without fear or anger.


A friend of mine is dealing with a problem like so many other people. Since she is a writer, I asked her to try to share a part of herself with us. She did. I don't think she wanted to; but I think deep down she knew she needed to. This was not easy for her since she has found it much easier to put thinking about "the situation" off to another day. When I asked her to write what was in her heart, she had to start allowing herself to think about her own emotions, she had to open herself up to the pain she's feeling, she had to think about her father's emotions, their life relationship and their now existing relationship. Christy Tillery French is an award winning author and poet. She is a creative writer of romance and murder mysteries. She has no problem with scalpel sharp prose yet opening herself up to her true fears and emotions proved to be a process far from easy. The following is what she decided she could share with us hoping it would help someone else.

"I'll never forget the conversation I had with my father when he told me his prostate cancer had returned. He mentioned this almost as an aside, then turned the conversation in another direction. But I wouldn't let him do that. I ignored what he had chosen to talk about and asked him what was going to be the next step in his treatment. It was at that point that he told me he had decided to forego treatment of any kind.

My first reaction was this terrible sadness, this sense that he has given up on life. Being the outspoken daughter that I am, I told him he needed to let the oncologist do whatever he determined was best to fight the cancer. My dad's answer was that this was a slow-growing cancer and chances were he would die from natural causes before the cancer claimed his life. And he is probably right, he's 75 now.

This was the first time in my life I actually considered my father's death. I was stunned at his decision, saddened that his life could be ending in a very short amount of time, and angry that he was not going to fight this terrible disease.

I can see his point clearly. If I were in his shoes, I would probably make the same choice. But this is my father, the one man aside from my husband who has been the predominant male in my life. The man I have always strove hard to please, to make proud of me. The one person I seek out at any family gathering to talk to and to listen to his wonderful mountain stories.

I'm not ready to face this and find myself turning my thoughts away each time they try to dwell on what he has chosen to do.

I know my wants and thoughts are selfish. I know this is his decision, his life. One thing that bothers me is he will not allow me to influence him in any way regarding this. He has made it clear this is what he will do and nothing more will be said about it.

He lives in Florida and I live in Tennessee. When we call one another on the phone, his answer to my question about how he is feeling is always, "I'm doing good." He won't elaborate. He has a heart problem and we discuss this at length, but he cuts the conversation short when it turns to the cancer issue.

And I have to say I feel a little relieved. I feel as I did as a small child: if it is not spoken, perhaps it will not be. Maybe it will go away if I don't think about it. Maybe I'll never have to face the consequence.

I've tried to face this thing, as Sherry has advised me to. I really have. But I begin to get teary-eyed, as I am now, and it's almost like a door slamming in my mind - a method not to think about it, not to dwell on it.

How do I deal with this? How can I just stand aside and watch him live the last years of his life, knowing there is not much time left? What can I do to support him in this decision when I do not want to support this choice? How can I talk to him about this without becoming so upset? How can I let go?�


How does Christy deal with this? How do any of us? We have to start with honesty. Once again the truth will rise up, tackle us, hold us down until we can speak and believe what is really in front of us. Here are some suggestions that will help in situations like this.

Brace yourself for some rough emotions. Sometimes itâ??s hard to look at the relationship as a whole. After all, what you are dealing with is what is happening now not what went on your whole life. The fact is the relationship as a whole is whatâ??s important. Once you have a better understanding and acceptance of the whole relationship the better you can communicate about what is taking place now.

Be careful what you wish for. Think about it seriously before you ask a parent to become more dependent on you whether it be emotionally, physically, or financially.

Try to keep perspective. Realize that your expectations for the situation may not be the same as the other personâ??s expectations. Accept that you will be changing in your emotions and so will the other party.

Set boundaries. Know what you can and want to do - not what you think you should do and then resent it at a later date. Allow yourself to experience your feelings and recognize the other person has feelings too that may be different from yours. Once again, difference doesnâ??t mean one person is right over another or wrong over another, people are simply different.

Respect yourself and the other person. Each generation is different. Each generation expectations and accepting of situations is different. With respect for one another, communication may open up to a new level of understanding.

Appreciate time. For many parent/child relationships, time is of the essence. Appreciate time you have for yourself and do something constructive with it. Appreciate time you have with someone you love and use it wisely. Appreciate the quality of time you give to another and they give to you.

Sometimes when you face losing a parent you miraculously find yourself. Many adult children live in fear of disappointing their parent. I always thought when it was said; â??you canâ??t go home againâ? it was because when you go home to your parents, you regress to the emotional childâ??s mind. You go back to the fear of disappointing, the fear of rejection, the fear of shame. Yet when we lose a parent we lose our past. We lose a large portion of who we were and who we are. A huge black â??munch it all upâ? hole enters our being and we wonder who will validate us now. Who will remember all those embarrassing moments we didnâ??t want told in the first place but now, the biggest fear is they will never get told again.

In the acknowledgments for my last book I wrote a few sentences about my mother that I would like to share with you.
â??I want to acknowledge the woman who almost lost her own life bringing me into this often challenging world. My mother is a strong, will-filled woman marked by a determination streak to survive and claim life for all it has to offer. I am humbly grateful.â?

My mother and I are like many parent/child relationships. Sometimes we look at each other with utter amazement wondering if this relationship is a mystery never to be solved. We exasperate one another, we question and irritate one another but we also share lifeâ??s most special moments. We build memories that will be passed on from generation to generation. We are enrolled by bond in the continuing education of life together. We learn and work through heartbreak and grief with an impassioned affirmation for it not to corrupt our souls. Our relationship is like a cat that always lands on its feet no matter what it has been through.

Parents raise children only to have children raise parents. A parentâ??s goal is to bring a child to a point of independence. At that point the adult child now has to educate his parents on the meaning of independence. A rigorous never ending cycle for challenging each others intellectual conclusions. With my daughter, it was very hard for me to know where I ended and she began. When she became an adult the calendar to my life changed forever and my exercise in self-discovery began.

When the level of distress is constrained to be lower than the level of benefit things change. You define how your relationships will be in the future. Only you can tear down the barriers of your own fears. Only you can heal with acceptance. Acceptance of yourself. Acceptance of your parent or your child. The parent/child relationship is gripping in its craziness but where would we be without the banquet-sized smorgasbord of love that can only be bestowed on a child by a parent.

submitted by: Sandy Lipkus M.S.W., B.Ed



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