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Helping a Loved One Navigate the Loss of a Parent

Supporting a partner after the death of a parent can lead to compassion fatigue. Sonima's psychologist shares why self-care is essential in order for you to be able to help them move forward.

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Dear John, 
My partner recently experienced the loss of a parent. I know she needs time to mourn, and I have supported her grief as much as I could. However, I don’t want to live with this sadness in our home forever. How can I help her move on? And what does that look like?
Yours, 
At a Loss 

 

Dear At a Loss, 

It sounds like this is a time where your partner needs support, and you are also recognizing that your ability to provide that support is reaching or at its limit. Compassion fatigue is a common experience that caretakers feel when overwhelmed. It is OK that you feel this way, and it is vital that you can recognize it. Here we will focus on a couple of steps you can take to more effectively care for your partner and yourself.

First, I think it is helpful to recognize that grief is not something that has a clear and definitive end. Rather, I think of it more as a lifelong process in which there will be times of differing levels of hurt, loss, and longing for the deceased. It is true that there tends to be a natural recovery period following grief. During that time the initial intense symptoms eventually lessen and fade. It is very likely that those feelings will reappear over the years, but oftentimes in a way that is manageable.

In psychology when we look at bereavement, the typical expectation for adults is that the emotional intensity associated with the loss will diminish within 12 months. If grief disrupts one’s functioning in different life areas such as social and familial relationships, work obligations, or other important areas beyond the 12-month mark, then it may suggest the person is experiencing complications with their grief and may benefit from professional support. Additionally, connecting your partner to professional support may protect your relationship from further erosion. If you decide to make this suggestion to her, do your best to be gentle, kind, soft, sweet, and loving in your encouragement. For many, seeing a therapist—especially if they haven’t before—can feel scary and in some cultures even stigmatizing (even though it should not be so). If therapy feels overwhelming to your partner, you may even consider offering to accompany her to the first few appointments.


Related: The Essential Couples Communication Secret


In the meantime, to help your partner move forward, it will be wise for you to do your best to first accept that her grief is a moving and living process that is natural and healing. As her process will ebb and flow, you will have to find ways to be able to stay present to her during the changing tides. This will involve you staying open to recognize when you are at the edge of your emotional tolerance. In those instances, it will be essential for you to take time for self-care.

When you are feeling emotionally balanced and centered, it’s a good time for you to reflect on and determine what sort of self-care you need to sustain yourself and be a loving presence in her life. Consider scheduling in time where you can take care of yourself physically (perhaps some form of exercise or yoga), mentally and emotionally (consider meditation, individual counseling, or hanging out with friends), and spiritually (such as spending time in nature, seeking spiritual communities, or prayer and contemplation).

Your self-care will be in service of you being a cornerstone for her. She likely needs you to accompany her as she feels her grief, and you will need to have those activities and practices available so you can release whatever emotions come up in you and empty your vessel so you can remain buoyant for yourself and for her. It also may take some pressure off you if you can recognize that you do not have to—nor is it your job to—fix or change anything about what she is feeling. Instead, as best as you can, your job is to be a non-judgmental observer who is bearing witness to her process. This is an advanced skill, and you will have to determine if you have this skill set and the ability to tolerate whatever intense emotions may come up for you as you hold loving space for her.

Challenging emotions can throw us off balance. If you notice that you get dysregulated while trying to hold space for her, there are a few essential skills that you can utilize on the spot to get centered. These include deep breathing and seeing that you are standing or sitting like a mountain.


Related: How to Balance Your Consciousness


A simple way to learn deep breathing is to lay down in a comfortable position, or you can also do this sitting. You can place one hand on your belly and the other on your upper chest. (It doesn’t matter which hand goes where.) Do your best to focus on breathing in through the nose and getting the breath way down into the belly so that you can feel the belly rise and expand with your inhale. The hand on your belly will move, while the hand on your chest will remain more still. After the breath in is full and complete, let out a long and slow exhale through your mouth. You can even purse your lips while you exhale. Again, keep the hand on the upper chest completely still. Focus on not being forceful with the exhale while also completely emptying out the lungs with the breath. Repeat this style of breathing for as many cycles as necessary and notice how this type of breathing supports an overall sense of relaxation. If you’d like, there are plenty of resources online to give you more in-depth instructions on this type of breathing.

The other practice is the seated or standing mountain pose. A simple way to practice these would be to notice how you are sitting or standing, and see if there is a way to add more stability and sense of grounding to your posture. Try this: Stand up in any position and notice how you feel. This is your baseline measure. Next, establish yourself in a comfortable and stable standing posture. To do this, you may adjust the distance between your feet so your feet are either together or hip-width distance apart. Connect to your breathing, close your eyes, and bring your awareness to your feet. Really feel your feet firmly rooted into the ground. Breathe up through your body and notice if you can stay grounded down while also breathing up more length through your spine and allowing your shoulders to relax down your back. Observe some beautiful space open around your heart, let your chin be about parallel to the earth, and feel a gentle sense of life up from the crown of your head. Allow your jaw and tongue to be relaxed.

As you stand here, practice deep breathing and visualize the most powerful mountain you have ever seen. Imagine that you can bring all the strength and stability of that mountain into your own body. Take a few moments here, breathing in and out, and allow these mountain qualities to imprint upon your body and psyche. When you are ready, release the practice and know that you can evoke this breathing and this mountain at any time when you need rootedness and stability to be the loving presence you need for yourself and for your partner. (For a more extensive version of a mountain meditation, you can refer to Jon Kabat-Zinn’s book, Wherever You Go, There You Are.)

Thank you for writing in with this question that has such a wide and likely universal application for all of us. I wish you and your partner healing along this journey.

Many blessings, 

John  

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