Your Parent Has Died. What Do You Do Now?

Some tips for navigating the first week

Lindsay Robertson
Sep 25, 2018 · 7 min read
Credit: Urilux/E+/Getty Images

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The circumstances of a person’s death, and the way a family reacts in the immediate aftermath, including religious and cultural traditions, vary so widely that it’s impossible to give specific advice that will apply to everyone. There are plenty of online resources to consult, from a Consumer Reports checklist with the basics to this excellent explanation of funeral planning. Here are some general tips for navigating the immediate aftermath of the loss of a parent.

Ask. For. Help.

When my mom died, I tried to make all the arrangements myself, and every mistake I made — from accidentally omitting one of the most important people in my mom’s life in her obituary, to feeling like I didn’t plan her memorial service the “right” way, to generally putting more stress on myself than I needed to at the time — came from a (common) tendency to try to do everything myself. It’s a bad way of doing things in general, but if there is ever a time to ask your friends and family for help, the death of your parent is that time. Put aside your hangups and take all the help you can get. Don’t feel like you’ll “owe” anyone if you accept their assistance during this time. They want to give it, or they wouldn’t be offering it. Just say yes.

Lean on Your Support System

I did one thing right: Within hours of my mom’s death, I called my best friend. She flew down from North Carolina and stayed with our family for days, cooking breakfast each morning and taking care of us. It was an amazing gift, and one that family members still bring up all the time. (“What would we have done without Amanda?”)

“There’s usually a friend who’s the organized one. The doer. The logistical maven,” says Rebecca Soffer, co-founder of Modern Loss. “Try to take that person up on it if they offer to help. Let them help you write a list of what needs to be done, and delegate. An email needs to be sent out, or phone calls need to be made. Ask who can do that, other than the person who just lost somebody.”

I’ll add that these helpers can be your friends or your parent’s friends or a family member. Even if it’s not someone you know super well, you can still accept their help. Trust people when they say they want to help. Remember: If they didn’t want to, they wouldn’t offer.

Still Stumped? Think About What Your Parent Would Want

If you’re lucky, your parent gave you some direction on their final wishes, whether it was a full funeral plan or even an offhand comment about wanting to be cremated. I asked my mom about this stuff a few weeks before she died, and I took notes. She wanted to be cremated and buried in a specific cemetery. She wanted pink roses at her funeral. She wanted a certain hymn to be sung. That was all we had, but it gave us some direction for the basic outlines of the arrangements we’d need to make.

As for the rest, we winged it, trying to keep her personality in mind when making decisions. For example: Our mom was an unflashy person. She loved everything DIY: sewing, knitting, cooking, baking, crafting. She loved music, nature, and camping. She had converted to Catholicism late in life and loved her church. She was a pediatric intensive care nurse for nearly 30 years. We incorporated this stuff as best we could by having a memorial service at her church with a potluck afterward, mentioning donations to the pediatric intensive care unit in lieu of flowers in her obituary, planting a tree in her honor, and having my brother’s bluegrass band play in the backyard of the family house on the night of her funeral.

If your parent didn’t provide details of their wishes, it might help to make a list of the things they loved and try to incorporate a few of them into the way you choose to memorialize your parent.

But Don’t Get Hung Up on Getting Everything Perfect

Maybe I’m not the best person to give this advice, because I am still upset about leaving an important person out of my mom’s obituary. (Tip: If you choose to write an obituary, have several people read it over!) However, you have to accept that mistakes will be made, and things will go wrong, and you’ll suddenly remember things years later that you “should have” done, and none of that means that you loved your parent any less. It still drives me nuts that Walgreens printed our photo albums for the funeral incorrectly so the cover photo isn’t centered. Whenever I think about it, I think, “She deserved better than this,” but you have to let that stuff go. (In reality, I know she would have laughed.)

Soffer agrees: “All you can do is make decisions with the information that you have, at that moment. And know that it’s fine in the end. Make some decisions and move on.”

Give Non-Family Members the Chance to Mourn with You

Your parent’s death can easily feel like it’s something that is Happening to You. Or, at least, Happening to Your Family. And it is. You were a big part of your parent’s life. But it’s important to remember the roles your parent played in the lives of their friends, co-workers, neighbors, and community as well.

In a lot of cases, there are going to be very sad people who aren’t related to you. You might not even know them all. If it feels right, let as many people as possible know that they’re welcome to mourn with you. One thing we did was prop open our front door, place the flowers that had arrived all over the front porch, and put out word that we were taking visitors in the days before the funeral. People came over and brought food and told stories and cried with us. This won’t necessarily work for everyone, but it was good for us.

For the Love of God, Give Yourself a Break!

After my mom’s funeral, I was able to stay another week in my hometown, going on long walks in the woods and canoeing familiar rivers with my siblings. Taking time to let our brains process the trauma we’d been through before getting back to hectic life was an excellent decision. If that’s not something you’re able to do, it might be a good idea to plan some time off in the near future. You’ll still need it then, even if it’s a few weeks or months later.

And be sure to read the condolence cards and messages you get. They are truly comforting. Even more comforting? You absolutely do not need to write thank you notes for them. You can, of course, if you want. But you don’t have to.

Remember That Major Growth Can Come from Loss

When I got back to “real life” after my mom’s death, I was shocked by how different the world seemed. We all know about the strange feeling of seeing everyone going about their day as if things were normal, when nothing feels normal, but I also started to notice that I had more empathy for strangers. I began to imagine that each stranger I saw or interacted with had also just lost their mom. While this ultra-raw state of empathy has unfortunately waned over the years, I can still access it. (And I will also never again be afraid of crying in public.)

I also became keenly aware of how short life is and made some major changes as a result. As cliché as that sounds, it’s one of those things that has to be starkly proven to really sink in. I would rather still have my mom and for my mom to still have her life, of course, but there are many ways her death made me a better person. I am also much more equipped to help and comfort others going through grief. Something definitely clicked in quickly on this front, because so many of the people reaching out to me were those who had lost a very close person themselves.

I also never knew what I was capable of handling until this tragedy happened. Before my mom’s death, I joked a lot about being “a delicate flower” and “still a kid.” I still make jokes like that (particularly the former), but now I know that when the shit goes down, I can absolutely step up. And so can you. You can handle it. After all, this will happen to every single one of us.

Lindsay Robertson

Written by

Writer, editor, comedy nerd.

The Beginner's Guide to Losing Your Parent
The Beginner's Guide to Losing Your Parent
The Beginner's Guide to Losing Your Parent

About this Collection

The Beginner's Guide to Losing Your Parent

None of us want to think about our parents dying. But it's going to happen to many of us way before we're ready, and there are so many things that can make this tragic event easier on everyone. Writer Lindsay Robertson, who lost her mother to cancer, brings a brain trust of experts and fellow travelers armed with practical tips and stories in the hopes of sharing what we wish we had known when the unthinkable happened to us.

None of us want to think about our parents dying. But it's going to happen to many of us way before we're ready, and there are so many things that can make this tragic event easier on everyone. Writer Lindsay Robertson, who lost her mother to cancer, brings a brain trust of experts and fellow travelers armed with practical tips and stories in the hopes of sharing what we wish we had known when the unthinkable happened to us.

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