Coping With Feelings of Loss When Your Parent Doesn’t Recognize You

Lisa Fields
Added: 08.22.2022
5 minutes read
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by Lisa Fields

As your parent’s memory fades away due to dementia, you may notice that the list of things that they can’t remember anymore increases over time. Yet it may come as a shocking gut-punch one day when you show up to visit and they no longer recognize you.

“The first stage is hardest on the person who has dementia,” says psychotherapist Marcie Dimenstein, LCSW, founder of the Connecticut-based Elder Pathways. “The later stages are harder on the loved one.”

When your parent has dementia, you may experience ambiguous loss throughout the course of their illness. This means that even though there hasn’t been a death, you’re grieving because your parent has changed significantly, and so has your relationship.

“You’re losing the person that you loved, but they’re right in front of you,” Dimenstein says. “Your brain can’t get around that. The grief of Alzheimer’s or dementia happens over and over and over again for loved ones.”

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People react differently to ambiguous loss
You may feel overwhelmed by ambiguous loss because your parent still looks the same and smiles that familiar smile when they see you, yet they can’t relate to anything that you say. Accepting your parent’s current state may be difficult to come to terms with if you witness flickers of lucidity on occasion.

“The stages of grief that Elisabeth Kübler-Ross wrote about so many years ago – [denial, anger, bargaining, depression and acceptance],” Dimenstein says. “When you have someone with dementia, you’re going through the whole of it all the time, and it’s exhausting.”

People cope with a parent’s late-stage dementia in different ways.

“Some have really addressed their sense of loss, and the death was just catching up,” Dimenstein says. “They’re sad when it happens, but there’s a feeling of almost relief – a relief to being done with that part of the journey.”

Many people don’t fully grieve until after their parents are truly gone.

“There are some people who have not dealt with it at all during the time that they’ve gone through and kept hoping that there was going to be a cure,” Dimenstein says. “They had much more grief.”

Adult children who had contentious relationships with their parents before the dementia diagnosis may have a harder time coping with the parent’s memory loss and eventual demise, often because of the unresolved aspects of their relationship.

“You’re never going to get resolution at this point, so, the ambiguous grief,” Dimenstein says.

How to practice self-care while coping with ambiguous loss
It can be heart-wrenching to spend time with a parent who no longer knows who you are. Give yourself permission to cry about the loss of the parent you used to know. Try not to feel guilty that you aren’t doing enough for them; recognize that you’re now looking after them and continuing to show them love, which is what they did for you when you were little. 

If you’re feeling lonely or overwhelmed, seek out a support group or meet with a therapist.

“Support groups are offered by the Alzheimer’s Association for people with dementia at all stages, and now they’re all online,” Dimenstein says. “They were wonderful for me [after my husband was diagnosed with early-onset Alzheimer’s disease and vascular dementia], and I ran some.”

Seeing a therapist one-on-one may help you address the nuances of your relationship with your parent, as well as your feelings of grief and loss caused by their advancing dementia, including a lack of closure to your relationship.

“Many caregivers are in psychotherapy,” Dimenstein says. “What it can [feel] like is an incredible depression for people who are having ambiguous loss.”

When you get upset about your parent’s advanced dementia, be patient with yourself. Treat yourself with the kindness and understanding that you would offer a friend who was in your situation. Take time to do activities that bring you joy, and take breaks from caregiving, if you’re a primary caregiver.
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