An often unspoken, but significant loss a parent can experience is when their child has a
mental illness. To consider this a source of loss is uncomfortable for many parents as they do not want to view their child’s illness as a burden. However, parents often respond to this type of loss with grief, which can negatively affect family members’ physical and
psychological health and their relationship with the ill child.
Families often encounter many challenges when a relative has a mental illness. Some of
these include coping with the symptoms and navigating health care systems, financial
hardship, social isolation, relationship difficulties, prejudicial attitudes of others,
disruptions in routines and hopes for the future, stress, exhaustion and frustration. The
losses faced by families are obviously not permanent, which can make them more difficult and ambiguous. When family members grieve this ambiguous loss, they often experience persistent intrusive thoughts and emotions, avoidance, and preoccupation with the child’s mental illness. This grief often intensifies when they are reminded of what is different in their lives because of the illness.
Many family members who grieve feel mixed emotions. Although they may feel anger
towards the relative, at the same time they feel guilt about being angry. Then often wonder why this particular relative must endure the illness and why not them. It is very common and normal for parents to feel uncertain about their child’s future and their own, have their hopes and expectations be changed, and lack the confidence and control to manage their child’s illness. Furthermore, parents often encounter missed opportunities to socialize and can experience a loss of self in the caretaking process.
By directing acknowledging the losses parents face, therapeutic needs can be met. Parents can benefit from sharing their stories, making meaning of the experience, and reflecting on its significance with a clinician in order to best coordinate their child’s care. Assisting parents to name what is gone or changed can normalize and validate their sense of loss and mixed emotions. Clinicians can also help address the parents’ cognitions around self-blame, aid in ways to cope, and encourage self-care. Clinicians can also help navigate the health care and school systems to facilitate the parent’s ability to assertively communicate their
questions and concerns.