Some of us are fortunate enough to have a parent who satisfies our basic needs for love, provision, protection, wisdom, and joy. We experience this through a collection of meaningful moments and sensations — this might include hugs, laughter, the preparation of our favorite meals, and their admiration for who we are as a person. We might even experience it through lengthy stories and lectures that we might feel weary of and yet gratefully learn from, despite our groanings to the contrary.
There are also many of us who have not experienced these things. Some of us have abusive, toxic, neglectful, cruel, and selfish parents; parents who abandoned us; or parents we lost before we got to know them at all. This creates a longing for the parent that we never had, the parent we wish we had, and the parent we dream about. It can also stimulate envy when we see them parent others who are not us. All this wishing, sadness, disappointment, pain, negative memories, and resentment is a form of grief. We are feeling and grieving the absence of the parent we never had, the parent who could have cared for us better and met our basic needs in childhood through adulthood — in short, the parent we never had but wanted and deserved.
So how can we cope with this grief? Grief can flare into intense pangs at times, but fade into the background during others. Grief might be triggered by memories and during moments of deep desire, throwing our day into a tailspin. It can be brutal, but grief is also a natural part of our emotional experience. So how might we consistently navigate it? We don’t all respond to grief in the same way. Some ignore it, choosing distractions over feeling, while others declare that they are simply “over it,” compartmentalizing and avoiding. Still others are haunted, remaining stuck in the pain of loss and never-hads.
The truth is, we cannot get rid of grief. It is an emotional experience that is a crucial part of our humanity. The best we can do is learn to cope with it by discovering how we respond to grief when it is present. Here are four suggestions for coping with the grief of the parent that we never had: awareness, permission, expression, and comfort.
- Awareness involves noticing or catching the moments of pain, anger, frustration, avoidance, and fear. It involves recognizing that these emotions are a part of grief and acknowledging that we are indeed experiencing grief.
- Permission is about granting ourselves the space and freedom to feel and own these feelings. It is when we literally put ourselves on pause to let these feelings wash over us, resisting the urge to push them off and ignore them.
- Expression aims to get the emotions out and release them — this could happen in several ways, from crying, writing, listening to music, talking it out with a trusted confidant, and even screaming into a pillow.
- Comfort, lastly and most importantly, occurs when the difficult emotions begin to feel less intense, less dominating, and we begin to feel more at ease. Comfort comes when we care for ourselves and allow others to express care for us. This can look like taking walks, socializing, bonding with a loved one, receiving affection, playing sports, exercising, gaming, and many other ways. One of the greatest forms of comfort is when we reassure ourselves by telling and reminding ourselves of certain facts. For example: I am loved by someone (insert sister/brother/cousin/niece/dog/etc. here). We can state things about ourselves that we admire. We can remind ourselves that we are not responsible for our parent’s behavior and that we have made it this far without their guidance. We can comfort ourselves by telling ourselves that we are not our parent and that we are our own person.
Through practicing these steps, we can cope with grief in a healthier way that can be bearable and even healing. We cannot go back in time to undo the loss and missed opportunities of our own parent/child relationship. But what we can do is show up for ourselves as the parent we needed — and still need — today.