We were recently asked, “How can I approach the recent death of a parent?” Our response to that question is below. We offer these thoughts as a framing for working with this event in case they may be of benefit. We also recommend Francis Weller’s approach to grief and dying in his book The Wild Edge of Sorrow: Rituals of Renewal and the Sacred Work of Grief.
1. Recognize that emotions may come and go as the grief process progresses, and this in itself may be confusing at times (“I thought I was over it!” or “how could I be feeling that now?,” etc.). Just knowing that this is a possibility helps to support the flow of what’s arising for the person and can allow the emotions to be felt, expressed and moved through in ways that are healthy.
2. You may discover “unfinished business” such as conversations that were never completed, or never initiated. I’d recommend bringing those further into the light if and as they arise, and then finding ways of actually having or continuing that conversation. This could be through writing and reading letters aloud, speaking into the familiar presence of the other (this could be in nature, or near the deceased person’s favorite things, or a picture with meaning, etc.). This approach can reveal and move things that we couldn’t have thought our way through. Depending on the topic and intensity of the situation, this may also require some up front preparation or work as well.
3. Lean into all feelings that arise and let them inform the person, sometimes in ways that can surprise us and help us to grow, rather than letting our thoughts guide what feelings should or shouldn’t be here.
4. Be sensitive to the fact that this event may trigger other seemingly-unrelated and unprocessed grief. If you sense an over the top reaction to anything that seems to be happening now, it may be helpful to inquire into the familiarity of the feelings that are behind the reaction. There may be another story and experience that’s been outside of the awareness that could benefit from some attention.
5. Allow him/her to share final words to the deceased person. It may also be helpful to invite the deceased person to write a letter containing all the things that she would want him/her to know, now that they’ve passed. Have the letter be written in his/her had, but by the deceased. For instance, she/he could choose to write the letter in her/his opposite hand or by typing if that helps, or to write it while sitting in the deceased’s chair or in the presence of a picture.
This exercise starts with recognizing that each of us can have an inner voice telling us what we should or shouldn’t be doing in any heightened situation. It’s a variation of a Loyal Soldier. (For more on Loyal Soldier, please review our Shadow Reboot.)
Often, our clients in this situation could be a founder, CEO, or any other strongly identified title. Human beings in these positions are trying to live up to an invisible and unexplored projection of what they hold as the CEO (or other title) they think they should be. They hold themselves accountable to this unique and unexplored standard, and one ramification can be that this aspect is blindly telling them what they should do and who they should be when they’re doing it. Before we begin, let’s make that explicit. Then, separately, let’s also bring forth a resourced adult of them forward and get that perspective so that they can make more conscious decisions (and know who’s behind the decision to be made).
This exercise is straightforward and simple as a journaling exercise (or a coach led discussion):
First, let yourself separate from the grief and emotional experience that you’re currently experiencing on a very personal, vulnerable and tender level. Just let yourself suspend that experience somewhere off to the side of you. You’re not turning it off as much as putting it all to the side, with respect for the experience and only for the moment.
Now bring your attention to the [title/role] you know you have inside of you who’s visibly and sometimes invisibly guiding you to do your work as a [title/role](whether you like it, or not, or both). Let this particular [title/role] voice be the one who guides you and keeps you “on track” to do what [title/role]’s need to do, and doing it in a way that [title/role]’s need to do it. It is the [title/role] voice that subtly, or not so subtly, tells you about the “shoulds” and “should nots” that you need to pay attention to, whether you like it or not.
Let this [title/role] part of you come forward now and take a look at your current situation and the death of a family member or someone close to you. What is this particular [title/role] voice whispering, telling or yelling into your ear now regarding what you should do or how you should behave during this time? Simply journal your answers. No need to judge them or act on them just let yourself write what this voice is telling you so that any shoulds and should nots are made explicit and visible for you. Let that [title/role] aspect of yourself share all it would like about what you should do and how you should behave.
Thank that [title/role] aspect of yourself for its service and suspend that perspective. Let yourself now turn your attention toward you as a whole human being. Let that aspect of yourself who carries your name and is the nurturing adult — the fully resourced self of you — to come to the forefront. Take a deep breath now…and breathe into your own solidity and the awareness you carry as a whole human being. Recognize that part of you that is well resourced and capable of being present with all of the feelings and experience present with what is occurring.
With your resourced nurturing adult present, bring back the experience you’ve been carrying, and suspended earlier, of the death of a family member or someone close to you. Let yourself connect again with the grief or other feelings that are present. Notice the vulnerability and tenderness that is also here.
With the awareness of this experience and now with the resourced nurturing adult of yourself present, ask the following of the resourced nurturing adult of you:
- What support would really be helpful for you at this time? What do you recognize as your own needs, and what support would really be helpful now?
- What would having that support do for you?
- Seeing all that is here now, what do you recognize as important behavior and actions at this time?
- Lastly, what guidance or words of advice does this aspect of yourself have to offer to the [title/role] of you? Let the resourced, nurturing adult of you share all of the words of advice for the [title/role] of you to hear.
Once this last step is done, take a look at what the [title/role] voice of you had to say and a look at what the resourced nurturing adult of you has to say. Now that you see these suggestions and the source from which they come, what choices would you like to make for yourself — as a human being and as a [title/role]?