Roberta Temes, PhD, is a noted psychotherapist who has taught classes in death, dying and bereavement at schools such as Downstate Medical School and CUNY. She is the author of several books, including the award-winning Living with an Empty Chair: A Guide Through Grief and The Tapping Cure.
Parentgiving: How can an adult child address his or her own grief—the loss of a parent—when there is a surviving parent who needs him or her more than ever because of coping with the loss of a spouse?
Dr. Temes: How does the adult child do this? With great difficulty. The adult child becomes adept at compartmentalizing and will do much of his/her grieving away from the surviving parent. When they are together though, mourning becomes a bit easier when the adult child and the new widow/widower weep together. While they both may be suffering from a broken heart, usually the child is on the threshold of, or in the midst of, a full life while the parent may be on a decline. The child thus may be more solicitous of the parent. They are both comforted when they speak about memories and share specific recollections as well as photos and mementos. The more chores the child does for his surviving parent the more they each can get on with life—the parent for having one less task to attend to and the child benefiting from the privilege of being useful to his parent.
Parentgiving: When both parent and child are grieving, what steps can they take together and separately to heal?
Dr. Temes: Together they can attend religious services, visit the cemetery and observe family rituals. Together they can do some projects—assemble photo collages, put up a website, figure out what to do with the personal effects. Separately it’s a good idea to speak or write about all the feelings that inevitably surface after the death of a loved one. In my book I describe some writing projects that have proved to be helpful to the bereaved. My clients always benefit when they write a letter to their loved one saying all the things they want him to know. Of course, we never mail those letters.
Parentgiving: As individuals, people heal differently and we hear about widowers who remarry quickly after the loss of a spouse because they don’t want to be alone, and have resentful grown children who feel the living parent is erasing all memory of the deceased parent. How can parent and child reconcile this difference?
Dr. Temes: Adult children need to be educated. They must learn that in previous generations independence was not valued the way it is today and their parents probably lived for decades in a mutually dependent relationship. I have counseled many widowers who wept every day until they remarried. There are plenty of people, particularly men of a certain era, who cannot survive without a woman to care for them and love them. The adult children who object must realize that this could be a matter of life or death for their parent. Knowing this, a wise child may begin scouting around for an appropriate companion for their surviving parent, thus preventing the parent from making a drastic mistake when choosing a new mate.
“Bereavement is a process during which mourners tend to get worse before they get better”
Parentgiving: When a grown child has been in a caregiving role and that parent dies, are there even more emotions to deal with because the caregiving “work” is gone and the loss of a parent takes away meaning from the caregiver’s life?
Dr. Temes: Usually it’s the surviving parent whose role has been removed. When it is the adult child he/she often finds meaning by volunteering for Hospice or reconnecting with former friends and activities that had to be forsaken during the parent’s illness.
Parentgiving: Many people don’t really understand the death process or the grieving process. If they haven’t been through it before, they may think there’s a timeframe after which they should automatically start feeling better. Those who have been through it know it can be an awful ache that gets dull with time but may never go away. What suggestions do you have for telling someone how to cope with the pain of a loss and words of enlightenment to let people know that grieving isn’t like an on/off switch that stops one day?
Dr. Temes: Bereavement is a process during which mourners tend to get worse before they get better. In my book, I have a chart showing that the worst feelings often occur many months after the death. Chapter 5 has a section on “Anniversary Days,” which explains that occasional setbacks are to be expected. Special days bring up special feelings. Certain memories bring up special feelings. Those feelings are painful but transitory. Sometimes connecting with others who have experienced a similar loss is helpful.