Losing a loved one is probably the worst thing that can happen to someone.
When you are grieving a loss, continuing to be present as a parent can be difficult — especially if your children are grieving too. How can you give your children what they need during this time, when you aren’t even sure what you need?
Grief is a journey like no other. When you are a parent, you can’t just put your children on hold while you sort out your feelings of sadness and loss. Life goes on, children need stability and they may be dealing with grief as well.
Help yourself first
Jennifer Shurnas was in her early 40s when she experienced the sudden and horrific death of her husband. She was faced not only with grieving the loss of her husband of almost 20 years, but with helping her three daughters through the experience as well. “One metaphor that describes parenting during grief is the airplane oxygen mask instruction which flight attendants give you — in order to help your children you must first help yourself,” Shurnas shares. “Fundamentally, you can’t help your child unless you are helping yourself.” Find the support you need in close friends, family members or a therapist. Don’t be afraid to ask for what you need, and accept offers of help when offered.
“Don’t hide your feelings,” advises Christina Steinorth, licensed psychotherapist and author of Cue Cards for Life: Thoughtful Tips for Better Relationships. “Many parents make the mistake of ‘being strong for the children’ and hiding their feelings of grief.” Especially when the children are also grieving the loss, it is helpful for them to see how adults process those same feelings. “Parents need to know that it’s OK for their children to see them sad,” says Steinorth. “When parents hide their feelings while the kids are grieving too, it doesn’t help children learn to process grief. It almost teaches them that it’s not OK to be sad and have feelings of loss and hurt.”
“A child observing your own grief, mourning and processing makes you authentically human and credible to them — someone they can relate to,” shares Shurnas. “It sends a message that it’s OK for them to do the same.” Depending on the age of the child, they will understand and process feelings of grief and loss differently — but look to parents and other adults for guidance.
“While each individual’s grief journey is unique, they will hopefully settle into their own process with your guidance and the guidance of others,” says Shurnas. Each of her three daughters found a different way to work through mourning their father. “My youngest child made and edited amazing videos of her father and dubbed them to music. My middle child would draw for hours at a time, and my eldest would talk and write about her feelings,” she remembers. Her own way of working through mourning involved touching objects that belonged to her husband, reading things that he wrote, looking at photographs and writing.
Sometimes, just having someone who counts on you each day is enough to make you keep moving forward. “It isn’t an easy balancing act,” Shurnas adds, “but my desire to take care of my children while making endless necessary decisions actually saved me from falling into a deep ditch of depression. Quite simply, my daughters indirectly saved me.” After the initial period of mourning passes, many find that trying to return to a regular routine of work and family commitments helps them stay on track as parents — and helps their children see that life goes on.
For some families, observing special days of remembrance or having rituals they can perform together helps. Shurnas and her daughters decided to have special rituals from time to time to acknowledge her husband’s spirit and keep the good memories of him close to their hearts. “For example,” she shares, “his favorite holiday was the Fourth of July — Independence Day. So, each year we release three dozen red, white and blue balloons into the sky in his memory. Red represents the love we have for him, the white is for peace in our hearts and the blue represents our releasing our ‘blues.’”
Parenting can be difficult as you face the emotional challenges of grief and loss. By including your children in your process of grief and recovery, you are teaching them a life lesson and helping yourself at the same time.
More on dealing with grief
Breast cancer: Coping with grief when you lose someone
Coping with grief: How to deal during the holidays
Helping someone deal with a cancer loss