Talking about the loss of a parent
Recent years have seen increased awareness of grief, especially around days such as Mother's Day and Father's Day. People who are bereaved seem to feel a need to share their stories and experiences. How can we start the conversation about the loss of a parent?
Originally published in Dutch on leidenpedagogiekblog.
Increased attention for grieving
For several years now, there seems to be increased attention for people for whom - for various reasons - days like Mother's Day and Father's Day can be difficult. In addition to all the commercial messages surrounding these days, social media are full of posts and photos of people with their mother or father. However, there is a growing awareness that such days may not be easy or celebratory for everybody.
In addition to awareness of grieving around days like Mother's Day and Father's Day, there is also perhaps greater attention for grieving in general and for the experiences of people who lost one or both parents at a young age. The SIRE campaign 'De dood. Praat erover, niet eroverheen' ('Death. Talk about it, not around it') was launched in 2022, urging people not to avoid the conversation about death. Additionally, several books, podcasts, and newspaper articles on this topic have appeared recently (see below this blog post), mostly written and created by young people.
There seems to be more of a need to share different stories and experiences in this area. Certain themes invariably emerge: the discomfort that many people seem to experience around death and/or conversations about death, and the "expiration date" that seems to be put on grieving: the expectation that grief should be "over" or "processed" at some point and that it can or should no longer play a role in someone’s life.
Grief has no expiration date, as can be substantiated by the phenomenon of "regrieving", which is written about in the literature. In the case of children and adolescents, regrieving means that grief comes into play again when a different or new meaning is given to the loss, for example as a result of an increase in skills and thus greater understanding about what the loss means to the bereaved person (Jeffreys, 2005; Oltjenbruns, 2001; Spuij, 2018). Regrieving is also evident in recent studies featuring interviews with adults who lost a parent at a young age (Chater et al., 2022; Koblenz, 2016; Meyer-Lee et al., 2020). These adults mention, for example, that the feelings of grief about the loss of a parent may increase around major life events, such as moving house, graduating, getting married, or having children. And these kinds of feelings may also be triggered by other events, such as the death of another loved one, the ending of a relationship, reaching the age of the parent when they died, or days like Mother's Day or Father's Day.
In short, grief is unique, different for everyone, and there is no "expiration date" after which the grief should be "over". Knowing that grief can come up around important events or days, a day like Mother's Day or Father's Day might be a good prompt to start the conversation with someone who has lost a parent.
Research project about experiences surrounding the death of a parent
For our research project we spoke with 60 participants about their experiences surrounding the death of a parent during childhood. These participants were aged between 25 and 46, and lost one of their parents when they were aged between 4 and 17. Although we are currently still processing all the information from the interviews, we have heard that some participants have also experienced reactions from people around them as unhelpful. They mention, for example, people who give unsolicited advice or start talking about their own experiences and feelings and thus seem to ignore the experience and feelings of the grieving person.
There are, of course, many differences in how people respond to the experiences of people who have lost a loved one, and how they engage in conversations about it. Nevertheless, it seems safe to conclude - with some caution - that reactions of others can affect how those who are grieving experience talking about (the loss of) their loved ones (e.g., Chater et al., 2022; Koblenz, 2016). Therefore, the next important question is: How can we engage in conversations about this, despite potential discomfort?
Talking about death
I think the first step is to become aware of the possible discomfort you yourself may experience when talking about death and the impact it can have on someone's life. On the topic of how to talk about grief with someone who has lost a loved one, I like to refer to a short video called "How can you help a grieving friend?" by Megan Devine, grief therapist and author of the book "It's OK that you're not OK".
Broadly speaking, the message of Megan Devine's book and animated video is that it is very important to acknowledge the other person's feelings and experiences. This means: try to listen to someone's story, no matter how difficult it may be to hear about difficult and/or sad experiences and feelings. Ask questions, without directly talking about your own experiences and feelings, and without offering solutions or suggestions.
I would like to end this blog with a quote about talking about death, taken from the book "De dingen die je vergeet" (The things you forget) by Gijs van der Zanden:
"The mourner is at risk of people staring uncomfortably at the ground. The person who wants to be there for the mourner is at risk of saying something inappropriate or awkward. Taking no action at all is so much safer, but then you rule out any chance of your paths meeting right from the outset. So I think both sides have to cross the bridge, to meet somewhere in the middle - at least, if there is a mutual need and willingness to talk. The responsibility is shared" (pp. 208/209).
One tip might be to say that you find it difficult to bring it up, or don't know exactly what to say, but that you would like to know how the person is doing and what is going on with them; you genuinely want to hear about their experiences. Try to start the conversation in an open way, also if the death of the person's parent or other loved one happened some time ago (or even a long time ago). Above all, accept your own discomfort, listen openly, and give the other person space to talk about their grief.
A selection of books, podcasts, and articles on grief
- Max Porter - Grief Is The Thing With Feathers (in English)
- Megan Devine - It's OK that you 're not OK (in English)
- Gijs van der Sanden – De dingen die je vergeet. Rouwen voor beginners (in Dutch)
- Lisanne van Sadelhoff – Je bent jong en je rouwt wat (in Dutch)
- Ameline Ansu – Van harte gecondoleerd (in Dutch)
- Tatjana Almuli – Ik zal je nooit meer (in Dutch)
- Manu Keirse – Helpen bij verlies en verdriet (in Dutch)
- Mariken Spuij – Rouw bij kinderen en jongeren. Over het begeleiden van verliesverwerking (in Dutch)
Podcasts and documentaries
- Dag voor dag - door Liesbeth Rasker (in Dutch)
- Een doodnormale podcast - door Benthe Göbel en Sabien Brehler (in Dutch)
- 2Doc: Waarom bleef je niet voor mij? - door documentairemaker Milou Gevers (in Dutch)
- 2Doc: Ik rouw van jou - door Nellie Benner (in Dutch)
- Een reeks artikelen over rouw door Lisanne van Sadelhoff - op de Correspondent (in Dutch)
- 'Van de dertigers om mij heen heeft de ene helft relaties aangeknoopt en huizen gekocht, de andere helft niet’ - in NRC (in Dutch)
- De levenslessen van psycholoog Manu Keirse: Luisteren is verdraaid moeilijk - in Trouw (in Dutch)
- Voor rouwen staat geen maximumtijd - op Pratenoververlies.nl (in Dutch)