Chapter 4: When your parent dies

After a long illness

I mourned the loss of my father before he died, the gradual loss of the person I knew. We lost the closeness and camaraderie we once had, and our conversations were limited to the mundane. He had been a captain of a ship, but with the dementia, he lost all ability to navigate through life, so I had to make decisions for him and that was very hard.

I wish I had known that anticipatory grief isn’t the same as grief after death, and that grieving before someone dies doesn’t make grief after they’ve died easier.

If your parent had been living for a long time with an illness that affected their body, their thinking, or their emotions, you may be experiencing a variety of feelings. You may feel that you lost them, or parts of them, a long time ago. You may have been grieving these losses for weeks, months, or years while, at the same time, thinking about additional losses that hadn’t happened yet. This is called anticipatory grief.

Knowing that someone has an illness or condition that will likely cause their death can provide you with time to prepare; but it doesn’t mean that you won’t grieve when their death happens.


Relief and guilt

It is both normal and common to have feelings of relief when your parent dies after a long illness. You may also be feeling guilty about having these feelings. But feelings of relief can live alongside sadness, longing, or disbelief that your parent is really gone. You might even be relieved that you no longer have to provide care, while at the same time missing the closeness of caregiving. Click on the switch button to explore reasons you may feel both relief and guilt.

Reasons you may feel reliefReasons you may feel guilt

Their suffering is over.

You no longer have to witness their deterioration or suffering.

You are free of the responsibility of caregiving or having to put your life on hold.

You no longer have to deal with a troubled or “difficult” parent.

You may wonder if your sense of relief means you are glad your parent died.

You think your relief is selfish because you did not want to witness your parent’s suffering or deterioration, and you wanted to be free from caregiving.

You may question the treatment or care decisions you made.

You wonder if you could have been more kind or forgiving with a “difficult” parent.

These are all common and understandable emotions and thoughts.


Is your guilt reasonable or unreasonable?

If you are feeling guilty, examine your feelings and ask if they are based in reality or if they are exaggerated. If your guilt is reasonable, it might contain lessons that you can carry forward. In contrast, exaggerated guilt tends to be unrealistic, leading you into an endless loop where you revisit certain events over and over. With reflection, you can see that these events were beyond your control. This can still be a painful realization, but it may help to let go of feelings of guilt.


What may help

Recognize the care and support you were able to give your parent while they were ill.

Forgive yourself for any times when you couldn’t be present, remembering that a lengthy illness can take a toll on anyone’s energy and patience.

Helpful Resources – Module 1: Grieving before the loss