Losing a parent is often one of the most difficult things people have to deal with in life.
Along with many practical considerations, the emotional toll it takes can be overwhelming, creating a sense of grief that can be painful to confront.
“Your parents are the people who knew you first, they know your history, they know all the stories about you,” says Claire Hewson. “They love you unconditionally.
“When they’re gone, when that’s gone, and they’re not around, it’s a struggle.”
Coping can depend on many things. The support you have from those around you, and the plans already laid in place.
“I was lucky. My mother was a fantastic organiser,” says Claire, 50, a call centre manager from London. “She organised her funeral with the local Co-op Funeralcare – her coffin, the car she wanted, and even the flowers she wanted.
“All I had to do was the music. Everything else was arranged and paid for. I will always be grateful to my mum for doing that. I wouldn’t have known what to choose.”
Coping with loss
The last couple of years have been ‘challenging and horrible’ for Claire, who lost her father, Bob, to cancer in May 2019, and her mum, Eileen, who died suddenly in June 2020, whilst in hospital being treated for an ongoing liver issue.
“It just felt like the rug had been pulled from underneath me. No-one tells you about death or what it feels like to lose someone. There’s still a stigma when it comes to talking about it.”
And yet, while she lost them both within a short period, her experience with each was quite different.
“Dad was in a hospice so we were going in every day, and the nurses were amazing, telling us what to look out for,” says Claire. “Every day we went in, not knowing ‘will it be today’?”
Claire was still coming to terms with losing her father when her mum died.
“It was different dealing with each death. With dad, it’s like I knew he was gone, I saw his body. Mum’s death was sudden, so I never got to say goodbye, and that really does mess with your brain, there’s no finality.”
The fact that her mum had sorted out her funeral was a blessing.
“When my mum’s sister died it was traumatic for everyone trying to arrange the funeral and sort the money out. Mum saw this unfolding and didn’t want that for me.
“She said she didn’t want me to have to worry about anything with her funeral. She went to Co-op Funeralcare and had a chat and chose what she wanted. She said they were very pleasant, and it was easy to do.
“I will always be grateful to mum for that because I wasn’t in my right mind and I’d urge anybody to do that. It makes that part so much easier for those left behind. All I had to do was phone them up and give them her details and that was it. It took the pressure off, and people don’t always have the money.”
This was a huge relief for Claire, who was struggling with the social distancing restrictions around funerals after her mum died in the middle of the pandemic.
“At her funeral, we could only have 12 people, the chairs were distanced and we weren’t allowed to have a wake, those things that are part and parcel of a funeral and saying goodbye to someone. It felt strange walking out and just saying bye to everyone.
“Not having someone close you can go to, and see and spend time with because of the pandemic, makes it so much harder to deal with. It’s isolating.
“And first milestones are difficult, Christmas and New Year, dad’s birthday, my birthday, mum’s birthday…”
Mother’s Day in March will be another first. Claire helps herself by writing about how she feels, something Julia Samuel, psychotherapist and author of Grief Works recommends. It finds a focus for your grief: “Writing down your thoughts and feelings, and physically looking at them on paper, means you can see them from a different perspective, which helps you process them.”
And there’s a reason ‘firsts’ can be hard: “These events or occasions are a connection between the past and the present,” says Caspar Williams of Cruse Bereavement Care. “They remind of you of who you’ve lost and what you’ve lost.”
Claire received support from The Good Grief Trust bereavement charity, whose Good Grief Cafes moved online during the pandemic so that she, and others in a similar position, could share their experiences and feelings and support one another.
“I ‘met’ between eight and 10 people three times a week at first and, while they are incredibly sad times, we have laughed too, and it’s a safe space. I’d normally have gone to close friends, but we all understood the grief each other was going through.”
To those grieving Claire says:
“Be honest. If you are not getting what you need from your partners, friends, it’s because they don’t know what to give you and they don’t want to hurt you. So tell them what you need. If you need to be hugged tell them. If you want to cry on the phone and they say nothing, tell them.”
You can also seek help through Co-op Funeralcare to find support for your mental wellbeing through its charity partners.
Tackle the taboo: it’s good to talk
Having experienced the relief of forward-planning, Claire highlights the importance of talking about death.
“You will know what that person wants so you can carry out their wishes. And you can honour them.
“I have been through two bereavements, and I urge people to have those conversations.”