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Planning for Death in the Family: Advice for Grief and Loss

No one dreams of dying before their children are grown. No parent envisions leaving their children before they reach milestones and become contributing, independent adults. Yet, it happens.

My mom died soon after I graduated from college. She and I were very close. As her caregiver at the end of her life, we had many conversations—some silly and some serious—about life and death. She would not, maybe could not, let her mind go to the reality which was that she would never see me go to graduate school, become a therapist, fall in love, get married, and become a mother.

Fast forward many years, and I will share with you what I wish we had thought of then, as well as some strategies for planning for loss of a parent that I use now in my practice as a grief counselor.

Advice for Grief and Loss: 

1. Document special events.

Memorialize the big events such as birthdays, graduations, weddings and becoming a parent.

One way to do so is to write letters for milestones. Include a story from your own life experience at that time. “I remember when I took my driver’s test.” Normalize the complex emotions of that time. “I was so worried that I would fail. That would be so embarrassing.” Include teachable moments or any words of wisdom. “Driving is a big responsibility. Always focus, no texting and driving and NEVER drive drunk!” End with a positive, supportive statement. “You will be great! I love you!” 

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You can also create a memory box using a shoebox: each family member writes their favorite memories on pieces of paper and puts them into the memory box to be read in the future. Decorate the box with photocopied pictures of great times shared, a family motto, inspiring quotes, etc.

2. Let your children know that all feelings are okay.

It takes great strength and courage to grow through grief. Grief is hard work and there is no formula or timeline that works for everyone. Each person will approach, manage and express grief differently. Help your teen to create a coping toolbox, including:

  • Tools for expression like a journal, sketchpad, watercolors, scrapbook materials, clay, or a stress ball.
  • A list of self-care strategies, like exercise, listening to music or creating a family playlist, the names and contact information of friends and family identified as good listeners.
  • Local resources for your teen to call, such as Hospice, a therapist or their primary care physician.
  • Get a punching bag with a box of words that they can tape onto the bag (for example, “cancer,” “scared,” “sad” and “mad”) to punch until they feel some relief.
  • Have quilts, pillowcases, or stuffed animals made out of swatches of your clothing for your teen to have for comfort.

Remember, asking for and receiving help takes great self-awareness, self-care, and courage. Normalize this idea: your teen may have a tutor for academics, a coach for sports, a counselor for growing through difficult times. All of these people are there to help your teen grow and develop skills and strategies to be their best.

3. Give your child permission to be happy.

Tell them to laugh, play and love without guilt. Let them know that the best way for them to honor your memory is to live their life well: have fun with friends, work hard in school, stay involved in what they love and take good care of themselves.

It is completely understandable if you find yourself overwhelmed with the notion of implementing these strategies. What could be harder? Enlist the help of close friends, family members, a social worker, or counselor. Your family will be grateful.

Jennifer Stern graduated from University of Chicago. Her areas of expertise include working with individuals, families and small groups on grief, loss, bereavement and life transitions.

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