Helping Dad Grieve

Dear Mr. Dad: My mom passed away three months ago. I moved into my parents’ home to support my dad through these hard times. The problem is that it’s like I’m in prison where I can’t do anything. I feel sad and depressed and find myself crying a lot during the day. Is that normal? My dad and I don’t get along either. He’s messy and I’m not. I like structure and he doesn’t. It’s a nightmare—what can I do?

A: When you look at lists of the most stressful life events, the death of a spouse or close family member and moving to a new house are at or near the top. You and your dad are both dealing with a huge amount of pressure. As a result, it’s not surprising that there’s some friction between you.

Losing a parent is very different than losing a spouse (notice that I’m not saying “more” or “less,” “easier” or “harder”—just “different”).

As an adult, you had your own life and routines that didn’t always involve your mom. But your dad’s life was much more intricately intertwined with his wife’s. You lost your mother, which is plenty hard. He lost his best friend, companion, and confidante. Everything he does and everywhere he goes will remind him of the way things used to be. Whether he actually admits it or not, he’s feeling lost, alone, scared, depressed, and probably angry as well.

I’m not trying to minimize what you’re going, but it’s really important that you support your dad as much as possible. The first step is to understand that being disorganized and messy—assuming he wasn’t that way when your mother was alive—are normal, especially for men. Aside from being signs of depression, there’s a good chance that he relied on your mom to manage the house. Without her he may quite literally not know what to do.

His natural inclination is probably to withdraw—physically, emotionally, or both. He may spend a lot of time alone in his room, he may not want to talk, and he may become less interested in taking care of himself. For that reason, you may need to help your dad with a lot of very basic things. Encouraging him to eat right, exercise, and get enough rest is critical: poor nutrition, a sedentary lifestyle, and lack of sleep can increase symptoms of depression.

At the same time, encourage him to talk about his feelings. Yes, he may be putting on a stoic front, but he also understands that you’re suffering too and he may be trying to protect you by not bothering you with his emotions. That’s a very “dad” approach. Sharing memories of your mom and talking about the good times can help you both better cope with your grief.

Now, what can you do? Given how much your father’s messiness and lack of structure bother you, consider hiring someone to come in once a week or so to do the things he can’t or won’t do. Taking on those responsibilities yourself just adds to your own stress, and that’s the last thing you need right now.

Give yourself time to grieve. Your sadness, depression, and tears are normal. Don’t try to stifle them. Also, make sure you get some “me time.” Taking care of your dad is a generous, good-hearted thing to do. But if you’re feelings stressed, resentful, overworked, and angry, there’s no way in the world that you can be a decent caregiver. So be nice to yourself. Take breaks, get exercise, and eat well.

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