7 Ways to Help a Parent Who Has Lost a Spouse

by Jennifer Messelt, LMSW, LGSW 

In my 14 years as grief specialist at Hospice of the Red River Valley, I’ve sat across from many grieving spouses. It’s been a privilege and honor to journey alongside them during their first year of grief. Through these interactions, I have learned about the grief reactions bereaved spouses have experienced.

I’ve also learned the types of helpful things their adult children have done to help them cope. On the other hand, I’ve heard examples of many ways adult children handled their surviving parent’s grief that were not so helpful.

Here are seven ways you can support a grieving parent.

1. Talk About Your Own Feelings

Talking about your own feelings of grief and missing your loved one can provide a sense of normalcy and comfort for your surviving parent. An example is “I miss when dad used to …”. Share your own grief experiences and “bursts,“ which are moments when something triggers a memory of your loved one and you’re overcome with emotion.

Grief bursts can include a certain song, scent, someone who resembles your loved one and more. By sharing your grief bursts with your parent, it can help him or her not feel so alone. Grief is a lonely road, and when we can help someone feel a little less lonely, we’re helping them along their grief journey.

I was 19 and still living at home when my dad died. A few months after his death, I walked through our laundry room and came upon a pair of my dad’s work boots. I stopped and bent down to pick them up and was immediately overcome with sadness in realizing he did not need me to bring them to him because he was no longer alive. I shared this moment and many other grief bursts with my mom, and I know being open about my own grief provided her some measure of comfort.

2. Ask Specific Questions

It is helpful to ask specific questions about how your parent is doing in terms of their grief. Is there a time when he or she misses their spouse the most (morning, bedtime, dinner, etc.)? Is there a certain season or time of year that’s harder?

I often hear grieving people say the hardest and most-often-asked question from other people is “How are you?” A grieving person struggles with how to answer that question. Does the person asking this question really want to know how I’m doing, or are they simply asking as more of a friendly greeting—not really wanting an answer other than a pleasant answer of fine or good?

When you specifically ask your parent how he or she is doing in terms of their grief and missing their spouse, it allows that person to be clear in what you’re asking. It also helps the person know you really do care about how he or she is doing since the death of their spouse.

Sometimes people shy away from talking about the deceased person or avoid saying the person’s name for fear they will make the grieving person sad or cry. I have found that grieving people are often consumed with thoughts of their deceased loved one and most of everyone around the person has stopped inquiring about the person who died. When someone takes the time to mention the name of the person who died or ask the bereaved person how he or she is doing, it is often a “gift” for the person who is grieving.

3. Plan Ahead for Holidays

When holidays are approaching, plan ahead to see if your parent has anything special scheduled for the day or if he or she would like help or suggestions about how to memorialize your loved one. Some ways to honor your loved one could be reading a poem, lighting a candle, praying, releasing balloons, planting a tree or potted plant, among other things.

I’ve talked with many clients who go into the holiday feeling vulnerable and raw in their grief and hope that their children or someone will mention their loved one. When this doesn’t happen, the bereaved person often ends up feeling heartbroken, sad or disappointed.

4. Offer Tangible Assistance

Offer tangible ways you can help with your parent’s “to-do” list, whether it’s something that his or her spouse used to take care of or taking something off their plate. Ideas include yard work, cooking or baking, taking out the garbage, grocery shopping, etc.

You can help with these to-dos every other week, once a month, once a season, whatever is reasonable for your schedule and what needs to get done.

5. Show Up

Your parent may not ask you to show up, but they will be grateful you did. After the death of a loved one, the surviving loved ones are often overcome by the care and concern shown by others. Food is being dropped off, the mailbox is full of sympathy cards and many people are calling and stopping by.

But as time goes on, it doesn’t take long for people to go back to their normal lives, and the bereaved spouse is left to figure out how to make a new normal for his or herself. He or she goes from being a “couple” to “single” person.

Many times, it is the first time the spouse has lived alone, especially when dealing with an older population. They come from a time when people went from living with their parents to getting married and never lived alone between the two. This can be a major adjustment for someone, especially at an older age.

There are many common grief reactions, but the one that always seems to stand out for grieving individuals is loneliness and yearning for their loved one. Showing up to visit doesn’t bring back their loved one, but it does help to fill their time and helps reduce their loneliness. Other ideas of things you can do include inviting the person to a community event or out for dinner.

It is surprising how quickly a person’s social life changes after the death of a spouse. I had one client who shared with me, “just because my wife died, doesn’t mean I don’t still like to play cards.” The normal group of friends he and his wife used to play cards with stopped including him in their card playing.

He also said that within their relationship, they each had roles they played. For example, he was the one who mowed the grass and shoveled the snow. She was the one who did the cooking and cleaning, and she also was the one “in charge” of setting up their social activities with friends. He was not used to initiating activities with friends and since their friends as a couple stopped calling him to do things, he was extra lonely.

6. Acknowledge Special Days

Remember the special days, not only the first year, but also the years after that. I often hear from grief clients that the second year was harder for them than the first year because people didn’t acknowledge their grief and/or special days like they did the first year.

One grieving person shared with me how much he appreciated receiving greeting cards in the mail from one of his children—on special days as well as just because.

7. Educate Yourself About Grief

Take time to learn about grief. There are a myriad of common reactions people experience to dealing with the death of a loved one. Often, these certain grief reactions will cause a person to feel like they’re “going crazy,” when in reality, what they are experiencing is grieving in a normal and natural way. People can experience just a few of the reactions or the entire spectrum; every person grieves in their own way.

One example I’ve heard from many bereaved people I’ve worked with is they can’t remember where they parked their car when they go to the grocery store or something similar.

Common grief reactions include:

  • Crying
  • Fatigue
  • Deep sighing
  • Short-term memory loss
  • Difficulty making decisions (even simple decisions)
  • Loneliness
  • Yearning for the loved one
  • Avoidance of people/situations

People often don’t know how to treat someone who is grieving, and sometimes people don’t truly understand what a grieving person is going through until that person also experiences the death of a loved one.

I have had a few clients express feelings of guilt as they reflected back on the death of one of their parents years prior because they have since experienced the death of their own spouse. The adult child is able to understand more fully what their surviving parent experienced in their time of grief. After some reflection, they will say, “I wish I would have been there more for mom/dad.”

When a parent is dealing with the loss of the spouse, they are trying to figure out what to do, who they are and what the future will hold. A simple check-in, either in person or over the phone, can mean so much to the bereaved parent. Sometimes the little things can mean so much, especially when a person is feeling so raw and vulnerable.

For more information about grief and how we can help, email grief@hrrv.org or call (800) 237-4629 and ask to speak to someone in the grief support department.

Jennifer Messelt is a grief specialist with Hospice of the Red River Valley.

About Hospice of the Red River Valley
In 1981, Hospice of the Red River Valley was founded on the belief that everyone deserves access to high-quality end-of-life care. We fulfill our nonprofit mission by providing medical, emotional, personal and spiritual care, as well as grief support to our patients, their families and caregivers during a tender time in life. Our staff helps those we serve experience more meaningful moments through exceptional hospice care, 24 hours a day, 365 days a year, wherever a patient calls home. The organization serves more than 40,000 square miles in North Dakota and Minnesota, including in and around Bismarck, Detroit Lakes, Devils Lake, Fargo, Fergus Falls, Grand Forks, Lisbon, Thief River Falls, Valley City and many more communities. Hospice of the Red River Valley offers round-the-clock availability via phone, prompt response times and same-day admissions, including evenings, weekends and holidays. Contact us anytime at 800-237-4629 or hrrv.org.


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