Losing spouses and parents

 In Gill's Blog

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The passing of the longest-serving monarch our country has known is also a large transition in a family. One who has lost a mother, grandmother and great-grandmother. She is the last of her generation in her immediate family and this is, as for other families who have lost their last parent, a time of significant transition from one generation to another.

The widowhood effect

The widowhood effect is a phenomenon in which older people who have lost a spouse or partner have an increased risk of dying themselves. Research into this suggests that the risk is highest during the first three months following the death of a spouse.

Many practitioners will have seen this in practice. One spouse dies only to be swiftly followed by another and suddenly the family have lost the generation that raised them and always seemed to be there for them. This can have a freeing impact in that you no longer have to behave as your parents would have expected, and/or it can bring with it the burden of now being the senior members of the family.

It has been said that since the Queen Mother died the Queen allowed her sense of humour to be more prevalent in public. This was witnessed by her involvement in the ‘James Bond’ skit at the London Olympics and more recently by the wonderful afternoon tea with Paddington Bear as part of her Platinum Jubilee.

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In the Queen’s case, she outlived her husband by more than three months but less than 18 months during which she looked increasingly frail and lonely. A long and happy marriage is likely to leave the survivor at a loss when certain aspects of life were organized in a particular way with one partner doing certain things, and the other different things. Together there would have been a team. In my own family, shortly before my father’s death, he tasked me with looking after my mother who to the outside world would have appeared entirely able to look after herself, but I knew what he meant – to be there for her and support her in her very full life of service.

Supporting the widow(er)

Bearing in mind that the three months following the death of a spouse or partner are the most stressful, family and friends rally round to give support. But often, by the time three months has passed, they get back to managing their own lives and are not so hands-on. Where you are acting in the estate of the deceased, you may be the only person providing continuing support to that grieving widow(er).

The three-month wobble is where the reality of living on your own kicks in and the widow(er) gets very emotional and often angry at their loss. They hit out at those around them which is often you as you are still there helping. Managing this wobble effectively and sensitively, no matter how hard, will ensure you have an ongoing successful relationship with this person and hopefully, as a result, their family.

Grieving the loss of a parent

Just like King Charles, there are many people who are from the baby boomer generation who will have lost a much older parent than earlier generations. The improvement in the health of the nation is that many more people are living until a great age. Is the loss of an aged parent any easier to bear than the loss of a younger parent? The loss is different. It may be a happy release from dementia but it may also mean that someone who was there for your whole life is gone and this leaves you bereft quite late in life.

Clearly, not everyone is lucky enough to have had a good relationship with their parents and the reaction may be relief they are gone but then anger sets in for perceived slights and misdemeanors.

Dealing with the challenging executor/beneficiary

The death of the parent can be a catalyst for the unravelling of the sticky tape holding a family together. Calming ‘upset’ people is different from dealing with ‘challenging’ ones. When a reasonable person gets upset, they may have a momentary lapse of unreasonableness but basically, that person is still rational and reasonable. By contrast, challenging people have a psychological need to get attention by disruptive and negative means and are chronically hard to communicate with.

“The challenge we all face is that our behaviour follows our thoughts which follow our feelings.” Wise words from Humantalk, a consultancy which helps humans make the most of themselves and each other [www.humantalk.co.uk].

Beneath a challenging person’s anger, there may be a legal justification. When acting in the estate of the deceased, the practitioner must always keep that prospect in mind rather than side with one beneficiary over another.


Recognising the significance of a loss of a spouse and the loss of a parent in a family is vital in our work as estate administrators. How are we choosing to behave in these circumstances? How supportive can we be? Do we need contacts with bereavement counselling to help us help our client families better?

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