Bad things happen at all ages. No matter how old we are when we lose a parent, it hurts. And as the parent left standing, the only thing you want to do is make it hurt less. I can’t speak to the technical psychological effects of losing a parent nor do I have absolute ways to change any of it. I can’t do that because I am not a licensed therapist and I don’t want to pretend to be one.
What I can do is give you some ideas. Ideas give you a starting point to work from. These are ideas that have either helped me or my kids grieve and heal. Hopefully they will help you too!
1. No Expectations
Each person grieves in their own way. It may be similar to the way you grieve or almost unrecognizable. Let them have their time to do it their way. Our normal plan of actions as parents is to see all the pitfalls and guide our kids through it through clear expectations and consequences or rewards. This time though, it’s different.
Forcing them into what we think they need or down a path we see fit might not only delay their healing, but also create more problems than they are already facing. Forcing their hand might create resentment and mistrust. This leads us to the rest of the list.
2. Don’t Be Afraid To Grieve, Keep Boundaries Intact
Kids are looking to you for advice on how to do this. Its okay, in fact important, to show them it is okay to be sad. Let them see you work through this, that’s how they are going to get through this, and the next loss, and the next. Keep in mind, you are still their parent. You are their rock they tie their lifeline to. If your foundations seems shaky, it leaves them uneasy also. It is hard for them to see you hurt and harder for them to see you struggle. We, as parents, have to be cautious in how much we let them inside.
When Randy died, Kayla was seven, Brendan was five, and Emily was only 7 months old. The first thing Kayla asked when she found out her dad died was, “How are we going to live? Will we have money?” She asked because she knew I didn’t work. Dad was the sole provider. At seven, she knew this was a game changer. She immediately showed signs that she wanted to take care of me. It was not her job to take care of me—it was my job to take care of me, and her.
I knew I wanted her to see me sad because I felt it was important for her to know that I loved him and missed him. I wanted her to know it’s okay to be vulnerable, to hurt like you have never hurt before—beyond that I wanted her to know she was not alone in that pain.
I hid the really dark times from her. I dealt with those privately and with the help of a counselor. I let the kids see a counselor when they felt they needed to and once in a while I took them to play with the counselor even if they didn’t feel like they needed to talk.
So, don’t be afraid to hurt openly. Make sure the kids know that you are okay. That this will be okay and that you will do it together.
3. Listen. Really Listen.
Kids may or may not have a lot to say. Emily obviously did not understand what was going on in our lives. Brendan and Kayla did, but on very different levels and they are very different people. Handling the same would have misguided, at best.
Kayla talked about it often. She wanted to see a counselor. She wanted to know what was normal and needed to hear it was going to be okay. Brendan was different. He didn’t understand, there was no way for him to fully process what happened. I listened and did what they needed me to. Sometimes I had to guess, and sometimes I guessed wrong. Other times, I nailed it.
Even though Emily was just a baby, I couldn’t discount her perceptions. She couldn’t tell me she knew something was different, but I knew she could feel if something was wrong. I knew she would never see her daddy again, so I just tried to love her more. So, I held her tighter, took naps with her on my chest, talked sweeter, played longer, and tried to keep my tears at a minimum.
Listening is more than hearing the words they say. Sometimes it is watching their body language or behaviors and deciphering what that means. Since kids don’t always understand the process and they don’t always have words to express the things they do understand. Listening requires figuring it all out–it’s a little bit of this and a little bit of that. Paying attention to the way they talk to their friends. Analyzing their drawings. Deciphering the tones in their conversations.
4. Find Normal–Again.
The first thing the chaplain at the hospital told me was to get the kids back into the normal routine. It’s a long story, but there was nothing, and I mean nothing, normal about our lives at that point. I couldn’t find normal with a map and a compass. Our lives were that upside down and inside out. I also didn’t understand why. I couldn’t exactly sweep this under the rug and act like it didn’t happen. It just seemed counterproductive to me. Since I didn’t know up from down, I did exactly what she said.
When I got home from the hospital, I called everyone I could think of to get the kids enrolled in their own school since the first day of school was Monday (and this was Saturday). As soon as I could, I moved back into our old house. I did not understand it. I did not know how to get it all done. And, it certainly was not easy. I did the best I could and once I was clear-headed, I understood why.
Getting the kids back to normal does not erase the event. Losing a parent causes their world to implode. One parent is gone, the other is a mess and nothing is what it is supposed to be. Putting them back in that routine gives them some resemblance of once was. It gives them a space in time when they can be who they were before that event–where they don’t have to be the kid who lost a parent, but rather just a kid. It keeps them from crawling under the covers and never coming back out. It slowly turns their world right side up and right side out. Nothing will bring back their parent, but they will learn how to live life the way they were meant to live it, even if it means with one less parent.
5. Family and Individual Counseling.
I know I mention this all the time, but there is nothing you could do that will have a more profound affect on their healing. As parents, we can do a lot for our kids, but maybe the very best thing we can do is teach them to ask for help when they need it. This is a time when everyone could use a helping hand.
Counseling gets a bad name. People attach it to this idea that there is something wrong with someone who needs counseling. That isn’t true. If you hired a plumber to fix a pipe because you didn’t have the knowledge or tools, would you feel insufficient or like something was wrong with you? Probably not. Do you feel like the world is watching you if you take your car to a mechanic? No, because you know you didn’t go to school to learn about the complicated nature of an engine.
Counselors are armed with knowledge and tools to get you through this. There isn’t something wrong with you, there is something broken in your life and it needs to be fixed. A counselor cannot fix it for you, but they can bear some of the weight for you. They can give you tools to figure it out. They can be the temporary foundation until you create a solid permanent one.
Counselors can be a tremendous help for kids too, for all the same reasons listed above. Beyond that, knowing that you are getting help lets them know that everything will be okay. It also shows them that it’s okay to ask someone to help. They see that they don’t have to hurt alone or carry this burden alone. Instead they see that people care, that everything is fixable, that they are never ever alone, and that if mom is acting a little off, they have a safe place to try and work that out.
Nothing is as simple as this list, but this gives you a great place to start and a nice road map to follow.