According to a study conducted by the insurance company Lemonade, 7 out of 10 American households have at least one pet. Pets are considered beneficial for mental health, providing companionship, emotional support, and entertainment. Furthermore, as is stated by the National Institutes of Health, pets are also found to improve human health by decreasing cortisol levels, lowering blood pressure, and improving mood.

If you are reading this article, chances are you are grieving the death or absence of a beloved pet, or you have learned your pet is terminal. Maybe there is something else going on. If not, you may be doing research to help someone who is going through such experiences. Whatever your reason for being here right now, I think we can all agree the key importance of pets in our lives cannot be dismissed.

We have all heard (or made) the statement, “that animal got me through a dark, bad time in my life.” I vividly recall my dachshund, Sierra, who I adopted only a few months after the death of my mother. While I knew she could not replace my mother, her unconditional love did help to fill the heavy void within my heart. As a dog with special needs (she was born with microphthalmia, which affected her vision) and me as a human broken by despair, we helped each other. Indeed, Sierra was my best friend.

Sadly, Sierra is no longer here, but I will never forget the bond we shared.

A child holding a dog

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The therapist/writer, Valerie, with Sierra.

When we consider the comfort, joy, and support given to us by pets, it makes sense why losing them can be devastating to our psyches. For some of us, our pets are closer to us than our own family members and friends – and indeed, they are our family members, repairing the wounds we suffered from others. Pets can offer the connection we need to remind ourselves we are loved. Simply think of the last time your dog ran to greet you as you came through the front door or your cat snuggled and purred on your lap.

Grieving a pet after euthanasia (being “put down”)

For some people, one of the most painful, difficult decisions they will ever need to make is to allow their beloved pet to be euthanized or “put down.” Euthanasia is frequently the merciful decision if the animal’s prognosis is poor. However, the realization of knowing you made a critical decision regarding your pet’s health and life can result in guilt, thus intensifying the grief process. You may swarm yourself with the “what-if” thoughts, such as, “should I have got a second opinion from another veterinarian?” or “is it at all possible the veterinarian was wrong and more could’ve been done?” or “did my cat even really want to die despite her being so sick?”

Unlike humans, who can help prepare for their demise through completing advanced directives, pets are incapable of making their own decisions. Thus, it is not surprising that devoted pet owners may feel complex emotions about if they did the right thing.

Grieving a pet due to an accident

A few years ago, I scheduled for my cats to be spayed. Since this was a routine procedure and my cats were seemingly healthy, I had expected nothing catastrophic to happen. Instead, I figured my cats would be fine, and that I was doing the right thing by helping control the excessive cat overpopulation. Luna recovered well. Tragically, though, my lovely dilute calico Maine Coon mix, Starla, died from the anesthesia. Post-mortem, the veterinarian discovered she had a hereditary form of hypertrophic cardiomyopathy, which is relatively common in the breed. I was devastated, shocked, and angry. I never thought trying to be a responsible pet owner would result in my cat’s untimely death.

In time, I realized Starla likely would’ve died young regardless due to her underlying condition. But in that tsunami of grief, it was difficult for me to think clearly. Rather, I thought there was an injustice.

Like my experience, some pet owners have complicated grief due to an accident that killed their pet. Whether this be a health-related issue like my Starla, or perhaps a beloved dog getting out and run over by a car, or a cat running away, such an unexpected event can complicate the grief process. They may also experience guilt or think they have failed their companion.

Starla as a young kitten, a few months before the veterinary procedure.

Grieving a pet due to surrender/rehoming and other such reasons

A final form of grief over a pet is not due to death at all, but rather in instances that an owner needs to make the difficult decision to rehome their pet. This can be for a myriad of reasons. Perhaps their animal is aggressive and thus unsafe around the children. Maybe someone in the home is ill, requiring much care, and stretching resources thin for the caregiver. Or perhaps the pet owner is experiencing unforeseen circumstances, such as job loss, eviction, or other life-changing events. The person could have become disabled and realized they do not have the ability to care for something dependent on them. Whatever the reason, the person has made the decision to give up their pet.

This type of grief presents its own challenges. Like the other two types, there is guilt, but it can be even more severe because it can be coupled with a sense of betrayal. Furthermore, such owners are also stigmatized by others, such as animal shelters’ social media pages that can portray them to have no justified excuse whatsoever to surrender their animal. This type of loss often is faced in secrecy because the owner is afraid to admit the reason behind what happened, aware they may be shunned for the violation of a social norm.

Whatever the reason for the pet loss, it is loss. It hurts. And it can hurt just like any other loss. Grief is not only for the death or absence of people.

The following are ways to help cope with the loss.

1. Recognize your grief is valid.

As a grief therapist, I can assure you it is normal to be distraught after the loss of a pet. There have been moments when my clients have confessed that they feel more heartbroken over losing their pet versus significant people in their lives. Some express feeling embarrassed or ashamed, saying things like, “the truth is, I’m sadder about my dog dying than my grandfather, but I know I’m supposed to be sadder about my grandfather.” In response, I challenge them to consider that unlike their grandfather, they lived with their dog. Their dog was never callous toward them, never judgmental, only a loving friend. And thus, of course it makes sense they would feel more grief for their dog.

For some people, pet loss can be the most difficult loss they have ever experienced. It is important for us to normalize this type of grief.

2. Understand that grief presents differently for everyone

Grief will manifest itself differently depending on the individual. In a family who lost their pet, one person may be angry. Another could be crying nonstop. Still another may seem indifferent. One person may say “she was just a cat” and think about getting another cat right away, while someone else may exclaim, “she was more than ‘just’ a cat; she was my friend, and no, I don’t want another cat!”

All people will progress through their grief journeys at their own pace, facing difficult obstacles and emotions. It is also not a linear process; instead, grief can “go backward” or be experienced more like a web or set of highs and lows. These experiences are normal.

To be of support to someone grieving their pet, simply validate their emotions. Let them know it is okay to feel the way they do.

Remember, too, that other pets in the household can grieve. When Starla died, Luna wandered aimlessly around the home for days to look for her. She seemed to finally realize Starla was not coming home. Since then, I added other cats to the family. Luna tolerates them, but she has never shown the bond with them she had with Starla.

3. Join a support group

Some individuals do not want or need a support group. For those who would like to feel less alone or are having a hard time coping because they feel their loss is misunderstood, they can benefit from peer support. They can find solace in communicating with others who are going through the same thing. There are many support groups on social media platforms such as Facebook specifically for pet loss.

4. Talk with a therapist

Yes, it is okay (and encouraged!) to reach out to a therapist to help grieve the loss of a pet and to learn coping skills for effectively managing that loss. As a grief therapist myself who has had my many heavy cries for losing a beloved pet, I will never judge you for talking about this issue to me. And it’s not just me – there're many therapists out there who would love to work with you through this issue, offering compassion, empathy, and loving support. You are not “weird” for grieving.

5. Honor your pet through memorials and rituals

For some people, a healthy way to express their grief is to honor their pet through memorials and rituals. Some veterinarians will send a grieving owner a sympathy card along with mold of the animal’s paw print. Meanwhile, some owners may choose to keep their dog’s collar or their cat’s favorite toy. Other owners may find comfort in reading the poem called The Rainbow Bridge, which suggests pets go to a special place in heaven accessible by crossing a rainbow-colored bridge.

Some people may find comfort in burying their animal in their backyard, while others may choose to do so at a pet cemetery. Others may do neither, choosing to keep the cremains, and others may not want any objects to serve as reminders. Again, there is no right or wrong decision here – all that matters is what will help you.

- Valerie Smith, LMSW, CFTG

The word trauma is used in many different contexts, and it has recently been more of a topic of conversation in recent years. When people think of trauma, the typical images that may run through their heads are of war veterans, sexual abuse survivors, or even other kinds of abuse experienced. However, I believe that the population of caregivers as well as loved ones of those who are battling a deadly disease or severe medical conditions experience a trauma that does not get noticed enough. This is what can be termed secondary trauma, when one learns about the traumatic experiences of a loved one. Try painting this picture in your head: sitting in a hospital room beside the hospital bed for days in and days out with no end in sight, having not much to do other than observe your loved one in pain while they are in the hospital or at home, as well as even possibly having to dedicate all your time to care for your loved one.

Unfortunately, my family recently experienced a significant loss. My stepbrother, who was battling cancer since November of 2015, had passed away on Christmas Day. His battle with cancer is one that will never be forgotten by those who surrounded him. My stepmom and dad were his caregivers throughout the whole process. As a mental health counselor, I was keen on observing the impacts his battle with cancer had on them. For the sake of their privacy I won’t divulge, however the countless sleepless nights as well as hospital visits speak for themselves.

What are grief disorders?

Our reactions to bereavement vary from person to person, everyone has their own way in which they react to the loss of a loved one. Grief disorders come into play when an individual is experiencing prolonged as well as complex grief symptoms, these symptoms are typically more challenging for the individual to live with as well as may cause significant impairments to your normal functioning. 

Some symptoms that are consistent with complex grief are: excessive irritability, consistent insomnia or sleep difficulties, intrusive thoughts about the loss, feelings of futility, as well as having a strong sense of responsibility for the loss. These are just a few of the symptoms that correlate with complex grief; it should be noted that if you are experiencing these symptoms and if they are lasting more than two months after the loss, it can be a signal of a prolonged grief disorder. 

The Impact

It can go without saying that in these kinds of circumstances, we have someone who is ill and may be getting traumatized in the process as well as a caregiver or family member watching all of this play out in front of them, can have a significant impact on how we are perceiving this kind of trauma. I believe that this statement describes the experience of caregivers and loved ones during this time, “for some caregivers and loved ones, watching the death of someone close to them, while making no attempt to stop it, can be excruciating and lead to shock and extreme emotional distress,” (GoodTherapy). 

Intrusive thoughts are common when talking about mental health and discussing our emotions. Intrusive thoughts are simply thoughts that enter the mind unwillingly that cause some sense of discomfort, or they can be images or impulsive urges that pass through your mind. In a situation like this, it is common for people to have constant intrusive thoughts about the person who has passed. Those who have a history of addictive behaviors may resort back to old unhealthy habits, and it's even possible for one to develop a fear that is related to the loss in some way (i.e. if the death was caused by a car crash, a fear of driving may develop). 

Why is it so complicated?

The history of it all. It’s true, the history that one has with the one who has passed can impact the way that they experience grief. Whether that history is traumatic, joyful, distressful, or filled with unforgettable memories, each has a unique way of causing a domino effect. For example, if the one you have lost was a significant factor in your trauma history it may be difficult for you to wrap your head around how to grieve this individual. Feelings of confusion, conflicting emotions, feeling alone in the grief, as well as feeling guilty for holding negative feelings/thoughts towards who has passed. We see you, and it’s okay to be going through all of these emotions and barriers.

Ultimately, it is up to you to decide how you want to experience grief and how you would like to progress on the path of healing, if needed. Your family may have their own words and ways of going about the loss, but this is not something that needs to be conformed to or feel as though you should be matching the level of emotions of your family members. No. It is your journey. It is your life to drive forward. It is your time to take care of yourself, and if you start questioning the reality of you being able to take care of yourself or if you have hesitations about doing so; just remember how much you have cared for your loved one and pull that energy inwards and direct it towards you.

Grief and loss is unfortunately something that we all come to know all too well. Even with that, it still feels like getting hit with a ton of bricks whenever it happens. Throughout our lives, we make connections, friendships, relationships with people that are not forgotten. It is important not to remember your loved one as they were during their last struggling moments, but to remember them by how they were around you.

- Conor Ohland, MHC-LP

For some people dealing with the death, illness, or absence of a *significant person, the holidays can be a time of mixed emotions like sadness, guilt, grief, as well as hopelessness. On one hand, we are expected to be festive and merry; on the other, we are reminded that person is no longer here or in the capacity they once were. It can be exhaustive to cope or grieve. Unlike an anniversary or birthday, where the day itself can be dreadful but otherwise there are limited triggers about it, the holiday season is different. The sights, sounds, activities, and gatherings go on for weeks.

Note: I use the term “significant person” rather than “loved one” in recognition that grief is complex. Not all people had loving, supportive relationships with the person who died, but regardless that relationship was still of profound importance. “Significant person” is thus an inclusive term.

Unquestionably, some holidays during other times of the year can be bittersweet, such as Mother’s Day or Easter. Yet as a culture, the holiday season seems to be the most profound in its importance for its emphasis on family gatherings. Thus, it is not surprising that for many people Thanksgiving through New Year’s Day can be especially hard.

The Grieving Grinch

A long time ago, I was close to someone who detested Christmas. He was a classic Grinch. From around September and onward, he would be triggered by reminders. It could not be avoided – every store was already getting decked out with Christmas decorations and toys to sell. By the end of October or perhaps early November, Mariah Carey was already bleating over the speakers at every store. This despair from September through January went on for years, with me making every effort to try to make the months more tolerable for him. Eventually, though, I realized he was too caught up in his grief. I told him that he has no control over the holiday season; that he must radically accept it will come every year no matter what, and that the more he fought against it the more it would breed misery for him. I encouraged him to instead honor his losses, truly grieve, but to still try to enjoy other aspects of the season. He insisted he wanted to avoid it. I asked him to consider, “how exactly would you avoid Christmas?” and he said he would lock himself in his room. My response: “Which would mean you would need to sleep for months. You wouldn’t be able to turn on the TV, go on the internet, listen to the radio, really… anything. Because the point is that no matter how much you try to ignore Christmas, it will come anyway.” I don’t know why, but somehow that dry, matter-of-fact response got him to begin thinking differently – he finally stopped fighting the “hatred” which in truth was grief. He was avoiding his grief.

Grief Coping Strategies

While by no means a complete list, the following are tips you may use to help you get through the holiday season if caught in grief.

Skip the holidays – but with a plan

Yeah, I know. I just got done writing about that person where I gave him the exact opposite advice. Hear me out.

The holidays are stressful enough. Compounded with grief, they can feel downright unbearable. The traditions, shopping, cooking, family, parties… all of it can feel tiring even when thinking about it. I want you to know it is okay to skip the holiday season. You may face backlash for saying no to Thanksgiving dinner, but your self-care comes first.

Remember these points before canceling your holiday season:

1) The holidays will come again. This year you may not have the energy to deal with the holidays, but next year may be different. At that time, you may feel ready to engage again. Do not think you have to be in a rut each year. That is unfair to you.

2) Ask yourself, “am I skipping the holidays to help myself or just to avoid the pain?”. If you need to, take your pen to paper to come to this answer. You may truly want to skip the holidays, or  maybe you are feeling pressured by others (family, society, etc.) to celebrate.

Additionally, ask yourself if you are prioritizing your self-care versus having avoidance. In psychology, avoidance coping is a maladaptive coping mechanism (in other words, an unbeneficial or unhelpful technique) that means to avoid processing the thoughts, feelings, and stressors associated with an issue. In grief, this can mean you are refusing to process the loss of the significant person, procrastinating things that need to be done that remind you of the person, or being in denial of emotions you are feeling. While this seems helpful in the present moment, it only intensifies the anxiety. It festers like an untreated wound.

3) Decide what you will do for the holidays, rather than only what you will not do. Remember that if you say no to going to dinner at Uncle Joe’s house, ultimately the rest of the family will be there. Then what? What is your plan? Before that day springs up on you, plan accordingly. If your idea of self-care is to binge-watch Cobra Kai in your bedroom on Thanksgiving, do so! But do not wait until the holiday arrives to try to plan as that may increase your negative emotions; you may make yourself feel unintentionally worse.

4) You may have regret or sadness if you skipped the holiday. On that day, you may go on social media only to notice the get-together at Uncle Joe’s house looked fun. Maybe there is a funny video of your younger cousin making a snide comment on TikTok. Maybe your sister posted a Facebook video of your three-year-old nephew unwrapping presents with a big smile. Ask yourself if it is worth you skipping the holiday or instead if you may find happiness in being with others.

Did you watch A Muppet Family Christmas special when you were younger? If so, remember when Fozzie Bear and his friends drove to Fozzie’s mother’s house with the intention of spending Christmas with her, only to find out she rented out the home to a man and his dog who wanted to avoid everyone for Christmas while she ran off to Malibu? Although the man was upset at first that his holiday did not go as planned, he ended up having an even better time because he allowed himself to join in the festivities.

5) Or you may have an even better day if you put yourself first! In that same special, Fozzie Bear’s mother was having the time of her life on the beach in Malibu.

Do not make comparisons

It is tempting to see other individuals or families enjoying festivities and comparing their experiences to your grief. You may feel worse, like you “should” feel merry.

It is important to remember that even under the best of circumstances, the holidays are stressful for most people and families. The sappy, magical events shown on television and captured in greeting cards are rarely the reality. For instance, you do not know if the hostess of the dinner was in a vicious argument with her spouse only minutes before the guests arrived, only to hide it all behind a beaming smile. You do not know if the parents are struggling to buy presents for their children. Instead, think about what you do have – you may feel more gracious!

Extend yourself to others

If you have the time, consider volunteering your time to someone who needs the extra support (Long Island Volunteer Opportunities). This could be spending the holidays at a hospice, nursing home, hospital, soup kitchen, or shelter. Your love and support toward a stranger may make their holiday memorable and bright, while benefiting your own mental health by taking your focus off the grief. Volunteering is very helpful in the healing process of grief!

Alternatively, reach out to a family member or friend who may need some help right now.

Remember that the anticipation can be worse than the day

In my work as a grief therapist and as someone who has experienced significant losses, I have noticed the phenomenon of anticipation being worse than the holiday itself. My hypothesis is that by experiencing the surge of emotions beforehand, we are thereby allowing ourselves to think the day itself will be awful, which will make us feel better when that day arrives, and we find we are okay. In essence, it is making us “cope ahead” by going through the storm beforehand.

Find support

You may reach out to friends and family for emotional support with your grief, but are worried about doing so because they may be preoccupied with the holiday season. Consider joining a grief support group.

Let yourself feel your emotions

Your emotions are valid. Do not think you must feel happy because it is the holidays or otherwise there is something “wrong” with you. If you feel angry, let yourself vent. If you feel sadness, allow the tears to flow. If you feel lonely, reach out to a friend.

Ask for help

We as a culture tend to be cautious of asking those who are grieving if they need help. We may assume it would be an unwanted reminder or we simply do not know what to say. Other times we may think that the bereaved are doing okay.

Please speak up if you need help from a friend, neighbor, or family member. Perhaps that entrusting someone else to make a particular favorite dish, cleaning up the house, or getting some other tasks done. People tend to feel satisfaction when they know they are caring for someone they love.

Other ideas

Are you looking for more ideas for coping through the holiday season? If so, go here.

- Valerie Smith, LMSW

Losing a parent is a life-changing, profound experience that almost everyone will go through at least once. In fact, the death of a parent is one of the most common types of death, and as a society, we expect we will outlive our parents. As a result, while the grief that accompanies the death of a parent can quickly be recognized with the inundation of flowers and sympathy cards, this commonality seems to minimize the loss and makes us think we should “get over” it soon. The truth is, it can still be a tremendous loss – and this sense of “get over it” can make the healing even more difficult because it comes with guilt.

While the death of a parent regardless of one’s age is universally a colossal experience, the death of a mother or father as a young adult can be even more devastating because it is compounded with unique obstacles. For instance, there are milestones that the parent is expected to be present for, such as college graduations or weddings, and it can seem impossible for anyone else to fill that space. Plus, for young adults, this type of loss can be especially difficult because they are on the cusp of dependence versus independence. While they strive to depend on themselves, they still may turn to their parents for financial assistance, emotional support, or the wisdom of lived experience.

And we know this much: When a parent dies suddenly or expectedly, there is an absence – an emptiness, perhaps – that arrives with the realization someone so significant is gone. Regardless of the relationship dynamics, whether it was balanced and warm versus chaotic or cold, the death will have a huge impact.

Some beliefs among young adults who have dealt with the death of one or both parents

“I feel so alone and misunderstood.”

“My best friend says she ‘get its’ because she lost her grandma. But I lost my mom. It’s just not the same.”

“I will never feel loved that way again.”

“Everyone is telling me I need to ‘get over it’ and start living my life. But how am I supposed to move forward knowing I’ll never hear Mom’s voice ever again?”

“Dad’s gone. Who is going to walk me down the aisle?”

“I’m so sick and tired of my friends complaining about their silly problems! They have no idea what it’s like to be in this much pain!”

“I’ve always wanted to be a mother. I wanted so desperately to have a family of my own. Now that I’m pregnant, I should feel excited. But instead, I’m just thinking about that my baby will grow up without grandparents.”

“Thanksgiving is going to be weird this year. Dad always sat at the head of the table. He always carved the turkey. He always said grace. I just don’t even want to go.”

“Mom has been an absolute mess ever since Dad’s been gone. I want to help her, but she doesn’t seem to care that I’m hurting too. It feels like she’s gone too even though she’s here.”

“They say they’re ‘here for me’ but they’re not. No one wants to talk about Dad anymore now that the funeral’s over. If I say something, I’ll sound negative.”

“My friends have told me I need to start ‘living my life’ again. They’re sick of me being so mopey and depressed. I’ve noticed they’re pulling away from me. Now I feel like I’ve not only lost my parents, but even my own friends, the same people who said they’ll always be there for me no matter what.”

“I hate to admit it… I feel guilty saying it… but yeah, I’m jealous of my friends. While they’re looking forward to happy things like getting married or graduation, I’m taking care of my mother who is terminal. She’s going to die and that’s that.”

“It pisses me off when people tell me ‘She’s in a better place now.’ It invalidates how I’m feeling.”

Above: Me on my wedding day, trying to replicate my most favorite photograph of my mother on her wedding day in an effort to feel her presence again.

The adult orphan syndrome following the death of a parent

For most people, they have known their parent(s) longer than anyone else in their lives. Whether the relationship was positive or negative, or there were additional issues like separation, parents still shape their children.

The identity of “son” or “daughter” is the first identity upon us all. Most people were cared for by their parents as they grew up, even if not done well, and their parents witnessed all the obstacles along the way – seeing all the rises and falls, all the happiness and despair, all the pulling in and pushing away for guidance.

By adulthood, we have formed far more identities while carrying over some from childhood. Yet the age never matters – we continue to be a son or daughter, the role carried from since the beginning.

To lose a parent thus brings about a role loss. When I lost both of my parents, I realized my first role – “I am a daughter” – was destroyed too. And my first sense of constancy, of a promise something will always endure, had died too. We all seem to realize we will likely outlive our parents, but the idea of them dying is so often shaken off until it happens. We see the relationship as permanent as the sun rising with every dawn.

Losing a parent in adulthood can bring about complicated emotions, one of them being abandonment. Even people who are very independent from their parents can still feel abandoned because the sense of constancy has been disrupted.

For young adults who were the main caregiver for an aging, disabled, or ill parent, the grief can be exacerbated since two roles are now lost: the role of being one’s child but also serving as their “parent.” It may also mean having to adopt new roles in the family going forward, such as needing to help the surviving parent with paying bills because they feel overwhelmed and that was always done by their spouse.

All of these issues are recognized by some researchers as what they call “adult orphan syndrome” in that the feelings of abandonment, confusion, role changes, lack of support, and idea of being alone are universal regardless of age. For some, the idea of being an orphan as an adult may sound insensitive to children who are orphaned, but it is not meant to compare or dull that pain – only meant to show that the feelings and complications can still exist.

It is interesting, too, that this type of loss has no such word in English. An orphan literally means a child whose parents are dead. A widow is a woman who lost her spouse; a widower a man who lost his spouse. Yet why not a word for those who lost a parent in adulthood?

Challenges faced by young adults experiencing parent loss

Although parent loss can be painful at any age, there are differences that are driven by our age brackets.

First of all, most young adults have parents who are alive and likely well. They may be mostly independent, but they know they can still rely on their parents when needed (obviously there are exceptions, but I am speaking in general). They and their friends will be “going home” for the holidays during college breaks to stay with their parents. They know their parents will be there at their commencement ceremonies, sharing in their joy for their successes. They excitingly call their parents when they get engaged, wanting them to be the very first people to know. Then during the engagement months, their parents are involved too, with the mother helping with choosing the dress and adorning her daughter on her wedding day, and the father walking her down the aisle. Parents, too, are also usually the first to learn when their child and the child’s partner are expecting a baby. And they are there for the baptism or other ceremonies, there for the birthday parties, the holidays, for help with childcare.

While these above milestones can still occur despite the death of one or both parents, it feels different. I will honestly admit I skipped my commencement ceremonies from college and graduate school (the pandemic did postpone the latter ceremony by a year, but regardless, I still did not go even when it was happening). I did not want to be “that person” who was there without their parents, that adult orphan. And while I was proud of myself, having been summa cum laude both times, I did not feel there were others to share in that sense of accomplishment.

I can also say that among my friends and family members, most of them do not understand what I have gone through as a parentless young adult. That is not subjective; it is factual. Some are fortunate to still have their parents. Others have lost their parents, but that was not until their mothers and fathers were in their geriatric years. My grandmother died at the advanced age of 93, an age considered a “life well lived.” My mother died at 57. While the adult orphan syndrome happens at any age, and pain is pain, it still does not feel the same. There is the lingering thought, “she should be here.”

Healing from parent loss as a young adult

The goal of bereavement therapy is not to “get back to normal.” That is impossible, for life has forever changed due to the death of the parent. The idea of having to “move on” is counterproductive, and in fact can make someone feel worse because they are burying the emotions they need to process. Instead, the goal after such a loss is to learn to redefine one’s life and to feel fulfilled despite the loss. It also not only the loss itself that must be explored, but also the update in roles, the severance of expectations, and all other things that come with death.

Losing one’s parent can unearth disturbing thoughts. It can make someone question their own mortality with the realization they too will die someday. They may think things like, “since Dad died at 45, that means I’ll die at 45 too” even if they realize that is irrational. Additionally, it can make one reflect on the importance of other relationships in their lives. One person may become closer to their siblings or friends, while others may distance themselves, and still others may decide to focus solely on their spouses and their children.

Such a loss can also be an inspiration to make newfound changes in one’s life – some for the better. For me, I was smacked with the realization of, “I must rely on myself. I am an adult” the moment my father died. This realization did not strike me when I moved out at age 19 to live across the country. It did not fall upon me on my wedding day. Hell, it did not even come up during the discussions with my husband about starting our own family. No, it really took him dying for me to have this fricken’ epiphany. Only a month after his death, I was on job interviews to have greater opportunities. Right now on the weekends, I am house-hunting with my husband rather than doing the same ol’, some ol’ things we did with our friends. We are trying to conceive.

I was already following a plant-based and low-alcohol lifestyle, but after my father died, I made the full commitment to being healthy. I make selective, nutritious choices, and I do not drink at all. A healthy lifestyle is my priority now, my sworn vow to myself, because I don’t want to die the way my parents did if I can help it. I want to live. One profound effect of the loss of one or both parents is the opportunity for positive changes.

The next step

Long Island EMDR recognizes the aftermath of a death is a significant, life-altering process. Some of our clinicians specialize in grief and bereavement, including having specialized training in this important field. We offer individual therapy and group therapy for this topic. In fact, we are even starting a group called Millennials in Mourning, which is specifically for Millennials and older Zoomers who have experienced parental loss. It will be led by me, Valerie Smith!

Reach out today to learn how we can help you navigate through this challenge while building a brighter future.

About the author, Valerie Smith, LMSW
Valerie Smith, LMSW, CFTG, is a therapist, social worker, and certified forest therapy guide at Long Island EMDR under the supervision of our clinical director, Jamie Vollmoeller, LCSW. Valerie possesses a bachelor and master’s degree in social work from Adelphi University and Fordham University, both from which she graduated summa cum laude. Valerie is also a certified forest therapy guide through the Association of Nature and Forest Therapy (ANFT), where she trained in the Rocky Mountains to master sensory-based, mindful activities through a biophilic perspective. Valerie is passionate about the health benefits of a plant-based diet as well as holistic wellness. Valerie is trained in EMDR and TF-CBT, with experience in DBT-informed skills. She focuses her treatment on adolescent girls and young women with C-PTSD and PTSD. Additionally, she helps people with life-threatening disease and their caregivers. Finally, she works alongside those experiencing grief and bereavement, especially young adults who lost one or both of their parents/guardians.

Throughout Western societies, we buy into the prevalent sociocultural belief of the stage theory of grief. As if to bring comfort and understanding of our loss, we are told we should progress through a series of five stages: denial, anger, bargaining, depression, and acceptance.

Even while I was in graduate school for social work, I can vividly recall some professors ascribing to this model, never once questioning if their claims were accurate since it seems to be a universal statement as true as 2+2=4.

In short, this belief pushes the idea that bereaved individuals must undergo a specific sequence of reactions over time as the result of the death of someone who was significant to them. Not only is this inaccurate since individuals may not experience all the stages in their set order, but it also is stigmatizing to those who never experience the stages at all as they may think there is something “wrong” with them. Thus, I argue that the stage theory should be abandoned, for there are newer, different models that are more accurate for illustrating the grief journey.

On the History of the Five Stages of Grief

In 1969, psychiatrist Elisabeth Kübler-Ross introduced the model in her groundbreaking book On Death and Dying. At the time, there was a severe deficit in medical schools on the topics of death and dying, which motivated Elisabeth Kübler-Ross to do the research herself by observing the reactions of her patients with terminal diseases. She was also influenced by some researchers with stage models from decades earlier.

Quickly, the Kübler-Ross Five Stages of Grief model was branded as universal knowledge among the medical community, scholars, and the public at large.

Later, Kübler-Ross clarified she never intended for the stages to be viewed as a linear progression, and that she wrote them in a way that was misunderstood. She added she meant for the stages to reveal how people with terminal illness cope with learning they are close to death, not as a reflection of how people grieve once that person has died.

In a later book Kübler-Ross coauthored, she lengthened her model to consist of all forms of loss, such as bereavement (the specific term designated for the death of someone who was significant), the end of a relationship, unemployment or loss of income, substance abuse, incarceration, infertility, and the diagnosis of disease. Thus, at best, the model is helpful for understanding grief across multiple contexts.

Major Problems with the Model

Unfortunately, there are significant problems with the Kübler-Ross model. They include the following:

Please note: For a detailed report on the problems resulting from the Kübler-Ross model from an academic perspective, please visit the citations at the bottom.

On Grief Recognition and Resolution: The TEAR Model

In an effort to replace the Kübler-Ross model with a more practical, forgiving model to help people navigate through their bereavement, therapists and other professionals have adopted the TEAR model. This is also known as the Four Tasks of Mourning and is explored in-depth by researcher J. William Worden.

T: To accept the reality of the loss.
E: To experience the pain of the loss.
A: To adjust to the new environment without the lost object.
R: To reinvest in the new reality.

Notice the paramount difference between the two models. In the 5 Stages of Grief, acceptance is at the end of the sequence which assumes the work has been completed. Conversely, in the TEAR model, acceptance is at the start of the journey. In other words, grief work can only begin once the mourning period has ended. It must come after the sympathy cards, texts and phone calls have stopped. It approaches when the bereaved individual is expected back at work or school, operating as if things are “normal” like nothing happened.

This comes after the mourning period, after when the sympathy cards, texts and phone calls stop coming. This is when the bereaved individual is expected back at work, operating as “normal” like nothing happened.

It is time we discard the widespread belief that grief is a set of prescriptive stages. We should embrace grief as an ongoing set of work, ready to be approached only once the public mourning has ceased. Acceptance is the prerequisite to face true, raw grief, and from it come recognition and resolution.

Further Reading:

About the Author, Valerie Smith, LMSW:
Valerie Smith, LMSW, CFTG, is a therapist, social worker, and certified forest therapy guide at Long Island EMDR under the supervision of our clinical director, Jamie Vollmoeller, LCSW. Valerie possesses a bachelor and master's degree in social work from Adelphi University and Fordham University, both from which she graduated summa cum laude. Valerie is also a certified forest therapy guide through the Association of Nature and Forest Therapy (ANFT), where she trained in the Rocky Mountains to master sensory-based, mindful activities through a biophilic perspective. Valerie is passionate about the health benefits of a plant-based diet as well as holistic wellness. Valerie is trained in EMDR and TF-CBT, with experience in DBT-informed skills. She focuses her treatment on adolescent girls and young women with C-PTSD and PTSD. Additionally, she helps people with life-threatening disease and their caregivers. Finally, she works alongside those experiencing grief and bereavement, especially young adults who lost one or both of their parents/guardians.

Let’s face it-the COVID 19 pandemic was something that most could have not imagined, let alone prepared for. Life as we knew it was immediately turned upside down. While there were many losses incurred, none seemed to compare to the families who lost loved ones to COVID-19. As a society, we were called on to do everything we could to prevent this from happening. This resulted in losing our way of life as we knew it and disenfranchised grief.

Disenfranchised grief is defined as experiencing grief and loss that is not readily recognized by a person, group of people, or society as a whole. The symptoms of grief are the same-experiencing shock, sadness, guilt, regret, anger, fear-however disenfranchised grief makes the process of grieving more challenging due to the lack of validation, social support, and rituals that are often associated with grief. This can induce feelings of isolation and powerlessness, leaving one to feel helpless to reducing their own pain and struggle. 

“But we were all going through the COVID-19 pandemic together,” you think. “Doesn’t this count for something?” While we can cite many examples of people making the best of a difficult situation during the pandemic, the undertone has always remained the same-our loss pales in comparison to the loss of human life. The time we lost with loved ones, the loss of our routines, missing graduations, homecoming, sports, weddings, travel plans, holiday traditions, and in general life as we knew it-these losses were expected of us to protect the greater good of human life. We told ourselves, “Those who lost loved one’s to COVID-19; THOSE are the people who are struggling.”

I am here to remind you that everyone’s grief matters. Loss in any form deserves to be validated, acknowledged, and processed. Symptoms of grief are not to be taken lightly, as left unattended can lead to depression, anxiety, and other mental health challenges. It does not serve us to minimize, separate, or compare our losses. 

So, what can we do to cope with our disenfranchised grief?

  1. Acknowledge and validate your loss. Hopefully this article started you on your journey of awareness in understanding that your loss MATTERS, regardless of the messages you have gotten from others, society, and yourself. Remind yourself that you are worthy of the time and space to grieve your loss.
  2. Begin to get to the root of your grief. When dealing with grief, what you don’t address will ultimately address you. Avoid the urge to suppress your grief and hope it goes away; unresolved feelings have a tendency to resurface later on.
  3. Write! Writing can be a therapeutic tool to uncover suppressed emotions. There are many writing prompts available online for coping with grief and loss. Do so slowly and with self-compassion, going at a pace that feels right to you.
  4. Make your own grieving ritual. Part of the challenge of coping with disenfranchised grief is that there are no clear rituals to honor and provide closure for the grief experienced. Rituals will vary from person to person; however, it may help to pick a place that has emotional significance where you can spend time to honor what was lost.  
  5. Find support. If there is a name for it, someone has experienced it. Seek out friends and family members that have experienced similar losses, or that you feel are supportive. Consider what you need from others and ask for it. As always, seeking professional help is recommended, as this individual is trained to guide you through this challenging process.

-Alexandria Baxter, LMSW

Grief is a normal response to mourning the loss of a significant attachment figure. However, some people experience complicated grief characterized by an intense, prolonged mourning period focused on unhelpful, painful thoughts, dysfunctional behaviors and difficulty regulating emotions. When someone struggles with complicated grief, unique therapeutic interventions are required to address it. Complicated Grief Therapy involves seven core themes, including understanding grief, managing painful emotions, thinking about the future, strengthening relationships, telling the story of the death, learning to live with reminders and remembering the person who died. Many people with complicated grief believe that they cannot be connected to their lost loved one without constant emotional pain. Overtime this can strain relationships, prevent an individual from honoring the memory of the deceased and prohibit the person from truly being connected to their loved one. It is possible to achieve meaningful relationships while still remaining connected to the deceased with the assistance of a Complicated Grief Therapist. Psychologist, J. William Worden named the four tasks of mourning which allow us to see how integrating loss into our lives does not erase their memories, but rather preserves our connections to them. 

1. Accepting the Loss

Sometimes grief can become complicated by unhelpful, often catastrophizing thoughts that cause some people to feel they are not grieving “the right way” if they come to terms with their loss. These thoughts cause people to have dysfunctional behaviors, such as avoiding places that remind them of their loved one or constantly day dreaming about their loved one. When we distract ourselves from painful emotions with avoidant behaviors, we inadvertently keep ourselves stuck in a place that prevents us from experiencing pleasant moments of connection to our lost loved one. A main concern for people with Complicated Grief is that they might forget or dishonor their relationship with the deceased if they accept the loss. However when we spend our time refusing to accept the loss, we actually reframe our relationship with the lost loved one around their death rather than the joy and connection shared with them when they were alive. 

2. Process the Pain and Grief of the Loss

Grief is a natural, emotional process that involves a balance between times of pain and sadness and times of respite where we are able set aside out grief for a time. Those with complicated grief have difficulty stepping out of their grief and inadvertently redefine who the deceased was as a perfect being. This means that we wind up moving away from the true identity of the deceased and our actual relationship with them. In an attempt to stay connected to this idealized person we hyper focus on reminders of them to feel close to them. Despite focusing on things that exacerbate their feelings of loss, we are unable to process our pain because we stay in a place where we are so overwhelmed by our grief that we are unable to cope or connect with our loved one. Allowing ourselves time and space to heal does not mean we have forgotten our loved one. In actuality permitting ourselves to process our pain will enhance our connection to the deceased by granting ourselves the ability to truly remember who they were and to cherish our memories of the true lost loved one. 

3. Adjust to the World Without the Lost Loved One

Important people in our lives often take on specific roles. This adds another lay of adjustment and grief after someone close to us has died. We may have to take on more house chores and errands which can serve as additional reminders of the loss or we may have to go to events that we would have gone to with the deceased alone. All of these tasks call on us to adjust to the world without the deceased, not to forget them. When we are unable to make these changes we diminish our capacity to function in the world. 

4. Integrate the Loss into A Meaningful Life

The purpose of Complicated Grief counseling is to integrate the loss into the survivor’s life in a way that allows the surviving person to feel connected to the deceased while still being able to function and feel joy in their lives. The purpose of integration is to create a healing process that celebrates the bond between the survivor and the deceased and highlights the joy experienced with the deceased rather than defining the relationship by the pain experienced as a result of the deceased’s death. 

Grief is not a voyage from which we eventually return unchanged. We hold people who we have formed close connections with in our hearts, even after they have passed away. If you feel you have been in a prolonged, intense state of grief that has prevented you from living a meaningful life while maintaining a connection to your lost loved one, please call our office so we can work on adjusting to the present and redefining the future. 

Be Well,

Marissa Ahern, LMSW

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