Dear Therapist: I Can’t Turn to My Mom for Support After My Dad’s Death

I don’t want to burden her when she’s going through such a difficult time, but I need to talk to her about my grief.

Illustration of family consoling their grieving mother.
Bianca Bagnarelli
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Dear Therapist,

I’m writing about a struggle I’m having with my mother. My father passed away at the end of May after a long battle with prostate cancer. He and my mother had been married for 53 years.

We all had very positive relationships with him, and this loss has affected our family greatly. My mother is mourning while also having to learn a lot of new skills, such as managing the finances, which my father had always taken care of. I am very proud of her for all that she has done.

However, my sister and I both struggle when we talk to her, because she never asks how we are doing with the death of our father. She does talk about how she feels, and I want her to talk to me about that. But there doesn’t seem to be a space for me to receive emotional support from her. I am always the one to call, and although I end each phone call with “Feel free to call me anytime,” she never initiates. Even when I call her and she’s busy and says she’ll call me back, she doesn’t.

I’ve told her it would be nice for her to call me sometimes, and she kind of apologizes, but then doesn’t follow through. I haven’t brought up my more general feeling of a lack of emotional support because I don’t want to hurt her when she’s going through such a difficult time. She will often apologize for talking about her sadness, and I respond by telling her the words I want to hear—that it’s important to talk about our loss, and that we need to talk about how it is affecting us.

I find myself calling her less frequently and then feeling bad about that. I just don’t know if it’s appropriate to bring up my feelings, because his death has affected her 100 times worse than it has affected me. But at the same time, I don’t want to be silently resentful.

I feel like I’m on a seesaw between wanting to advocate for myself but also wanting to be conscientious of her grieving, and I don’t know what to do.

Boston, Mass.

Dear Erin,

I’m sorry that you haven’t been able to share your grief with your mother at a time when you’re both reeling from this tremendous loss. It makes sense that you’re seeking emotional support, because losing a parent is a significant event in a person’s life, and that doesn’t change just because you’re an adult.

I’m pointing this out because when young children lose a parent, people around them typically try to provide them with space to process their grief—family members might encourage them to talk about what they’re feeling, or set up family or individual sessions with a therapist, or send them to a grief group for children. Adult children, on the other hand, might find that after the initial condolences, people assume that they’re okay and then don’t bring up the loss again. (This misconception about loss also happens with adult children whose parents divorce.)

Moreover, some people also assume—as you seem to, with your view that your mother’s experience is “100 times worse”—that there’s a hierarchy of grieving, and that pain can be ranked based on a person’s role in the deceased’s life, such as being the surviving spouse versus the surviving child. But the problem with these rankings is that they deny the reality that death is sad and loss is painful. Full stop.

I’d encourage you to think about your mother’s loss not as worse but as different. She has lost her partner, the person she slept next to for half a century and to whom she told the details of her day; she lost the person with whom she raised children, weathered life’s challenges, shared emotional and physical intimacy, navigated a household and its logistics, and held unique memories and experiences that she alone is left with.

But you have also experienced a massive loss—different, yes, but not lesser. You have lost one of the two people who raised you since birth, and in addition to the irreplaceable connection you and your father had—the shared lifelong experiences, rituals, inside jokes, stories—you also likely lost a buffer between you and your mortality. The death of a parent can make an adult child view the prospect of her own death as real for the very first time, and force her to contemplate what life will be like with no living parents. It’s common, too, for adult children to grieve the loss of what that parent will miss in their lives in the future—seeing a professional accomplishment come to fruition, watching any grandchildren grow up, being part of still-to-come meaningful events and milestones. You might also experience yourself as unusually vulnerable, having lost a layer of security or protection, like the safety net of being able to call your dad for advice or knowing you have a place to land if anything were to happen.

In the midst of all these complicated feelings, you might feel abandoned, not just by your father, but also by your mother, whose attention is focused on her own grief. You want her to parent you in this moment, to comfort you in ways no one else can. What you are experiencing isn’t just loss but the start of a new era of your family, with new dynamics and new roles. If you handle this moment of transition with honesty and kindness, you’ll be able to find your way in this new family system.

While you and your mom might be struggling in your own ways, the paradox of grieving is that it’s both a solitary experience and hard to sit with alone. Your mom seems unable to provide the kind of support you need right now, and the only way to find out why is to replace your indirect attempts to engage her (hinting that you’d like her to call you; telling her it’s important that she share her feelings in the hope that she’ll ask about yours) with a direct conversation.

You might start with something like this: “Mom, I’m so proud of everything you’ve done since Dad’s death. I know that on top of taking on new responsibilities, you’re also missing him so much and having to adjust to life without him. It’s all so hard. I don’t know if you know this, but I’ve also been having a hard time, and I’ve wanted to share that with you, but I’ve been afraid to burden you. Maybe it would help both of us to talk about Dad’s absence in our lives as we go through this, but I also understand if that’s too much for you. How do you feel about that?”

When she responds, listen not just to her words, but also to her tone. There’s a big difference between an encouraging I hadn’t realized you were struggling; I’m so glad you brought that up and a hesitant Sure … um … I guess that would be okay.

Even if you don’t get the response you want, you might learn something about your mother that helps you understand her behavior in a way that feels less hurtful. She might say, for instance, that she never calls you because she doesn’t want to overwhelm you with her grief. Maybe she’ll explain that she doesn’t ask about your struggles because your grief would be overwhelming for her while she’s living so deeply in hers. She might tell you that she’s been very depressed, and you might consider that depressed people don’t tend to initiate phone calls or remember to call people back.

This information will be helpful, because the death of the first parent often leads to a reorganization of the family structure. You might start to see your mom more as a separate individual, distinct from the pair of “Mom and Dad.” If your mom was the one to support you in the past, your family dynamics might be shifting so that you will now start to be there for her more. But that doesn’t mean you should grieve alone. It simply means that you should find another way to get the support you need. You can talk to other family members and share memories of your dad, reach out to friends who have lost a parent and can better understand the nuances of your pain, create a memorial or put together a scrapbook of you and your dad, join a grief support group, or see a therapist who can help you process the many feelings that are coming up—not just about your dad, but also about your mom and the inevitable changes a parent’s death brings about in a family’s dynamic.

Finally, you can create a balance between being there for your mom and making space for yourself so that you aren’t talking only about her grief, and you might even gently suggest to her that many people who have lost a loved one find therapy to be very useful, and then help her find a therapist of her own.

The result is that you’ll get support navigating not just your dad’s death, but also the many changes that come with it. By moving into this new role both with your mom and in your own life, you’ll also be practicing for what lies ahead: holding your dad’s love inside you and moving forward at the same time.

Dear Therapist is for informational purposes only, does not constitute medical advice, and is not a substitute for professional medical advice, diagnosis, or treatment. Always seek the advice of your physician, mental-health professional, or other qualified health provider with any questions you may have regarding a medical condition. By submitting a letter, you are agreeing to let The Atlantic use it—in part or in full—and we may edit it for length and/or clarity.