If your parent loses a mate, spouse, or life partner, he or she may need a good deal of emotional and practical help. If you were close to your parent's mate (or the deceased was your other parent), you may need support, too. Family members, friends, and grief support groups are all good places to turn for comfort. As you're able, you may want or need to help your parent face the following tasks, decisions, and questions.
In many circumstances, your parent will have to act as executor and wrap up the estate of his or her mate. (In some circumstances, this will not be necessary -- for instance, if your parent's spouse or partner had a grown child of his or her own who will act as executor.)
If your parent will serve as executor, there may be a lot to do. You may be called upon to help with everything from sorting through belongings to searching for a will or collecting insurance and other benefits. Take it one step at a time and know that there are resources to point you in the right direction. You may want to begin by reading What Does an Executor Do? to get an idea of what your parent will have to do and how you might be able to lend a hand.
Your parent is likely to need more care after losing a mate. This may be as simple as arranging for others to support him or her during the grieving process by visiting more often, bringing food, or helping with small tasks. On the other hand, your parent's need for care may increase greatly, depending on his or her health or circumstances. Indeed, sometimes when one mate dies it becomes apparent that the other will not be able to live on his or her own, because of physical or mental limitations. If you believe your parent will need long-term care or help, visit our Long-Term Care Resource Center.
It's not always an easy subject to raise, but the death of a loved one often opens the door to conversations about the type of medical care we do (or don't) want at the end of our lives and who would take care of our finances if we could no longer manage them.
If your parent hasn't yet addressed these matters, you can help to prepare some basic legal documents that will express his or her wishes and put important decisions in the hands of a trusted person. To learn more about these documents and how to prepare them, see Helping an Elder Make a Power of Attorney.
If your parent hasn't prepared power of attorney documents and is no longer capable of making medical or financial decisions, you'll need to ask a court to appoint a guardian or conservator to take care of these things. See Conservatorships and Adult Guardianships for basic information.
As your parent works through the loss of his or her mate and the practical tasks diminish, you may find that it is a good time to talk more about what will happen at the end of your parent's own life. For example, you'll want to make sure there's a will or other estate plan, and that it has been updated to reflect your parent's changed circumstances.
Over time, you should find out where your parent keeps important documents, including estate planning documents, bank account numbers, retirement plan information, and passwords to accounts. You may also want to explore whether your parent has any wishes for a funeral or memorial service and whether he or she prefers to be buried or cremated. For step-by-step help on all of these practical tasks, see Practical Estate Planning: Organize Your Documents.
Finally, our checklist on Helping Your Widowed Parent can help you begin to deal with all of these tasks in an organized way.