How to Survive the Loss of a Parent

How to Survive the Loss of a Parent

by Lois F Akner


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Many people who usually function well are thrown for a loop when a parent dies. They're surprised at the complex feelings of love, loss, anger, and guilt, and at the unresolved issues that emerge. Therapist Lois Akner explains why the loss of a parent is different from other losses and, using examples from her experience, shows how it is possible to work through the grief.

Anyone who is going through or trying to prepare for this natural, normal, inevitable loss will find How to Survive the Loss of a Parent a powerful, healing message.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780688137915
Publisher: HarperCollins Publishers
Publication date: 11/29/1994
Edition description: Reprint
Pages: 240
Sales rank: 309,643
Product dimensions: 5.50(w) x 8.25(h) x 0.60(d)

About the Author

Lois F. Anker, C.S.W., is a psychothearpist specializing in family counseling. She lives and works in New York City.

Read an Excerpt

Chapter One


Everyone can master a grief but he that has it.
— William Shakespeare

On a cool evening in late September, I leave my office and walk twelve blocks to the community center where I am beginning a new series of workshops for adults who have lost a parent.

I have been doing this series three times a year for the past seven years, and you'd think I'd be used to it by now. But every new beginning makes me feel humbled. The people who come to these groups are experiencing real agony because a parent has died. They are in mourning, and the experience has knocked all the wind out of their sails. Their grief is often all-consuming. As one woman put it, most graphically, "Every day of my life I look down a long, dark tunnel and see no glimmer of light. " They've come to me, to this group, because they can't find a way to recover on their own. Friends, spouses, siblings, surviving parents — all the people who might have been so supportive at the beginning — have moved beyond the point of patience and are saying, "Enough already. Get on with your life." But their bereavement is tangible and unshakable, and they just can't.

If you're reading this book, you (or someone you care about) may be feeling the same overwhelming sadness, and you don't know what to do or where to turn. You may be having trouble understanding the hold this grief has over your life. Maybe you fear you are way out of bounds and nobody else could possibly react this way. Depending on the relationship you had with your parent, you may even think your reaction is inexplicable. You, too, may be finding that everyonearound you has lost patience and doesn't want to listen anymore or look at your sad face.

If this is your reality, I invite you to join the journey of a particular group of people who share a similar experience. In the pages of this book, I will introduce you to twelve men and women who are struggling to cope with the loss of a parent or both parents. They are ordinary people having what for them is an extraordinary experience.

As I prepare to meet with the group and contemplate what I will say to them, I am aware that every one of the twelve people who walks into the room this evening will think I know more than they do about life. What they hope is that I can wave a magic wand and make it all better. They often like to get a guarantee before they sign up. Almost inevitably they ask, "Will this group help me?" My answer is not always the one they're looking for: "Not necessarily. Sometimes you need to let yourself feel bad at the beginning. After all, we kick up a lot of strong emotions here. You just need to know you can survive those feelings." I can't promise I'll meet every one of their expectations. Mostly they don't know what their expectations are. What I can do is give them an hour and a half a week for six consecutive weeks-set aside from all outside distractions — when they can think and talk about their parents and what they're feeling. During that time, I will open some doors and ask them to look inside, and that won't always be comfortable.

Many of the people who come to my group want to believe the relationship they had with their parents was simple and pure — the one safe haven in a hostile world. They feel abandoned and neglected when a parent dies. In their minds, this was the only relationship where they knew they had absolute, unconditional love. Their faces become pinched and fearful when they ask, "Who will ever love me the same way again?" These strong, usually competent adults, many with families of their own, are terrified because they have lost Mom or Dad or both. They are suddenly uprooted from a security so profoundly essential that they describe themselves as adult orphans. I have seen people grow fearful of love because they anticipate the pain of loss. The mother of a three-year-old daughter once said, with tremendous anguish, "How can I let her love me knowing that some day she may feel the same pain when I die?" This woman's wounds were particularly deep, but her comment illustrates just how severe the hurt and fear can be.

Others come because they feel just the opposite. Their relationship with their parents was difficult, and they never seemed to get what they wanted or needed. Now they're angry or disappointed, because things were never set right.

How to help them? Six weeks is not much time to heal these wounds. Indeed, that's not even my ultimate goal. I help them most by allowing them to have this time to grieve and by encouraging them to think about the implications of these important relationships.

What I do in the group is not therapy, although some of my group members are in therapy or decide to enter it after the workshop is completed. It is important to understand the distinction between therapy and a support group. I don't pretend that in six weeks, over a period of about nine hours, all the deep and complex issues will be resolved. For many, the group is only a first step, albeit an important one. Although the sessions are intense and frequently very revealing, people don't leave at the end with everything cleared up. Support helps people through the process of grief. Therapy helps remove any obstacles that are in the way.

Now, I think about the people in my new group.

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