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Lessons from your first parent dying

Losing a parent is a difficult and emotional experience for anyone, and it can be especially challenging for adults who have spent a lifetime with that parent. There are many different emotions that may arise during this time, such as sadness, grief, anger, and guilt. While I'm grateful to have both of my parents alive, these are some of the things I've learned as a death doula and being in spaces where grief is so openly expressed, especially around the loss of a loved one.

The first thing to know is that if you have lost a parent, or any loved one for that matter, drastic shifts in your mental health are very common, and you aren't alone in that. A research from the National Center for Biotechnology Information (NCBI) states that after the death of a parent, the risk of developing a psychiatric disorder, such as depression or anxiety, increases by 60%. This highlights the importance of recognizing the potential for mental health issues and seeking support if needed.

A study by the American Hospice Foundation found that around 61% of adults felt their lives were permanently altered after the death of a parent. This highlights the significant impact that losing a parent can have on an individual's life. For example, a person may have to learn how to navigate family dynamics and holidays without their parent, or may feel a sense of loneliness and isolation without the parent's presence. Additionally, a survey conducted by AARP revealed that around 70% of adults feel that their relationship with their deceased parent continues to be important and meaningful to them, even after the parent's death. This can manifest in ways such as talking to them in their thoughts, feeling their presence in certain places, or seeking guidance in decision making. Whatever comes up for you and however you choose to carry their presence with you, even after they are physically gone, is all apart of the process of loss.

One of the most common lessons that adults learn when their first parent dies is the finality of death and the importance of cherishing loved ones while they are still alive. This experience can serve as a powerful reminder to appreciate and make the most of the time we have with our loved ones, and to tell them how much they mean to us. For example, if someone regrets not telling their parent how much they love them or appreciate them, they can use this as a reminder to express their feelings to loved ones in the future.

Another lesson that adults may learn is the reality of grief and the different ways in which it can manifest. Grief can be a complex and multi-faceted experience that may involve feelings of sadness, longing, and emptiness, as well as physical symptoms like fatigue and difficulty sleeping. It can be helpful for survivors to understand that grief is a natural and normal response to loss, and that there is no "right" way to grieve. For example, some people may find that journaling or talking about their feelings helps them to process their grief, while others may find that spending time alone or immersing themselves in a new hobby is more helpful. Reflect on what's most supportive and conducive to your own healing. Many people learn the importance of self-care and seeking support from others during the grieving process. Grief can be an overwhelming experience and it can be important to take care of oneself in order to get through it.

This can mean different things for different people, but it might include things like exercise, spending time with friends, journaling, or seeking professional counseling. Someone may join a support group for people who have lost a parent while another may seek individual therapy to work through their feelings of grief and loss.

The experience of losing a first parent can also remind us that death is a natural part of life and that it will happen to everyone eventually. This realization, while difficult and painful, can also bring a sense of perspective and acceptance. Many people find solace in knowing that their parent's suffering is over and that they are at peace.

Memories can play a big role in helping to keep the loved one's memory alive. The idea of cherishing the good memories can help people cope with the void and find ways to keep their loved one's legacy.

Lastly, the experience can also remind us of the significance of family and friends in providing emotional support during difficult times. The support of loved ones can help alleviate the pain of loss and provide a sense of comfort and connection. Just remember that everyone grieves differently, and there's no time limit, it is a process of time, patience and self-care.

What lessons have you learned from having your first parent die? What lessons continue today as you think of them?

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Breena Fain
Breena Fain

Breena is a writer, certified death doula, and co-founder at Addio based in San Francisco. She leads Addio's content efforts and helps families navigate their end-of-life plan. In her free time, you can find her at the piano, on the beach with her dog, eating her weight in sourdough bread, and volunteering at a local SF hospice facility. (She's also who runs all our social media accounts so be sure to say hello!)

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Should you create an online will or use an attorney?

If you're weighing the pros and cons of doing it online versus going through an attorney, let us break it down.

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