Parenting While Grieving

When it comes to parenting, humans are a protective bunch. I feel qualified to say this as I am the mother of two young girls who I would shield with my life. Call me anxious but I have lay awake many a night playing out disaster scenarios in my head; trying to decide how I would manage to keep my kids alive if faced with a tornado, fire, flash-flood, or tsunami.

I know the idea of planning for a tsunami when you live in a Mid-Atlantic state sounds like lunacy, but parenting makes you weird. Most parents know no limits when it comes to keeping their kids safe and many will go to great lengths to simply keep them happy.  We wait to eat until they’ve been fed; we work like crazy to provide them what they need; we drag ourselves out of bed because they’ve had a nightmare, and we worry, worry, worry.

It seems intuitive to me that when parenting a grieving child, one’s protective instincts would kick in. Death is sad and scary and it can make you feel vulnerable and unsafe; what parent doesn’t wish for their child to be ignorant of these realities for as long as possible? The problem is most parents have put off reading the Parenting a Grieving Child section of their handbook and although they know they want their children to feel safe, secure and happy, they’re not 100% sure how to help them get there.

Many parents figure it out and thankfully there are a lot of quality resources for grieving children available to those who want them. As a society we seem ready to acknowledge the importance of helping children with grief and we’re willing to dedicate resources and brainpower to the cause. At the local level, one might expect to find children’s grief camps and child focused grief centers; while nationally there are a number of wonderful resources like the Moyer Foundation, the Dougy Center, the Family Lives On Foundation, and the National Alliance for Grieving Children to name a few.

Obviously there is always more work to do and I wish across the board issues having to do with grief would get more time and attention; but overall I think we’re doing the best job addressing child grief.  Rightfully so, because children are vulnerable and the death of someone they love will undoubtedly impact them for the rest of their lives.  I just worry that when there isn’t equal emphasis, time and resources dedicated to the grief of adults that we reinforce a parental tendency to downplay or ignore their own needs (i.e. The ‘I’m Fine‘ Syndrome)

Protecting children is natural. There’s a reason why they remind you every time you set foot on an airplane, “If you are traveling with a child or someone who requires assistance, secure your mask on first, and then assist the other person.”  They know the initial instinct for many will be to protect the small and helpless rather than themselves. Parents are so accustomed to heroics and self-sacrifice for the sake of the children that when something bad happens to the entire family, in our case the death of a loved one, many adults will put their needs on the backburner.

parenting while grieving

I observed this first hand while working with families at the time of a loved one’s death; when offered adult grief resources they’d say, “No, I’m fine” and when offered resources for the kids they’d say “Yes, absolutely.” I can’t make a sweeping generalization as to why people didn’t want their own resources, but I’m willing to bet it sometimes came down to an inability to worry about oneself until reassured the kids we’re going to be all right.

According to a 2009 report by the Institute of Medicine and the National Research Council depression in parents is associated with children’s poorer physical health and well-being, among many other things. Now grief is different than depression (although the two can co-exist), but the point I’m trying to illustrate is that the emotional health of the parent matters; especially when the child is grappling with something as difficult as the death of someone they love.  

For adults, grief can trigger an onslaught of emotion, feeling, and secondary loss which can impact our ability to parent with a cool, calm, clear and even head.  When we’re stressed, sad and confused we may have less patience and attention for the things that matter most to children like routine, ritual, reassurance, patience, attention, warmth, and guidance. Emotional impact aside, one should also consider the toll grief and its bedfellows like anger, isolation, depression, anxiety and stress can have on your physical health.

Additionally, the pain of grief and the stress of secondary loss, when not addressed, can leave some grievers more vulnerable to negative coping like alcohol, drugs, overeating, avoidance, oversleeping and isolation.  This type of coping is a temporary fix and can become corrosive and toxic for parents, children and the family if allowed to spiral out of control.

As parents, we get so used to putting the kids first that we sometimes view the business of meeting needs as an either/or scenario. What we often fail to understand is that prioritizing our own needs is not contrary to taking good care of the children; it’s actually requisite in being able to provide them with the most safe and loving environment possible.

Grief is not something a parent or child will sprint through, so there’s no point in trying to resolve one person’s needs before the others.  Parents need to set a good example when it comes to expressing and coping with grief and quite often one of the best way for parents and children to understand and support one another is to grieve together, especially on the tough days.  A child needs their parent to be as good as they possibly can be, given the situation, so they can help them understand what has happened, guide them through the hard stuff, and help them feel connected to the person who’s died.

Between parents and grief professionals alike, I don’t think we do enough to emphasize the need for adults and children to deal with their grief simultaneously. We may acknowledge it’s important in various ways, but do we really encourage ourselves and others to believe it?  My hope for this post is that at least one parent walks away with the belief that their well-being is an essential and important factor in the healing of their entire family.

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March 28, 2017

14 responses on "Parenting While Grieving"

  1. Thank you for this. My husband past away two and half years ago. I put all my energy, and worries towards my two wonderful boys health and well being. Of course, I keep myself health and fit, and busy beyond belief. I think I’ve kept so busy, in order to keep from thinking about our loss, I may not had time to grieve properly.

    • Profile photo of Eleanor Haley

      Hey Andrea,

      This is a really common experience for parents of grieving children! Sometimes it’s easier (and necessary) to give our children all our attention, but it can be detrimental if don’t allow ourselves to grieve as well. I hope you’re able to find sometime for yourself soon.

      Eleanor

  2. A “2009 Resource?” I had to do it in 2002 and I think I failed at it, or that’s what I call it when someone ends up in Bellevue Hospital because they made a Trauma 1 (deadly serious) suicide attempt 6 weeks after it occurred. I took her out of Bellevue because it was the worst place ever. Then she went ‘Friends Hospital’ in Philadelphia which was long term and stayed longer than 6 months.
    There’s no way I can describe what it did to her when I told her that her dad was never coming home. It did something so terrible I can’t find words that accurately portray it but I watched it happening in front of my face.
    She was 15 when her dad died. I had to tell her he was never coming back at a time when I didn’t even believe it myself, so I told her something like this: “These people say he’s never coming back and they’re going to start a death certificate process even though not one remain of his physical body has been found yet.”
    It was 10 days later (and we’ve never received a ‘physical confirmation’ of his death the way they do it, by matching a DNA sample we gave them with anything found at the site of the killing.) He died in Tower 1 of the World Trade Center; it was a murder scene & investigation site involving the FBI of New York City and lots of other people I barely even recall. Anyway, the proper way they do it is to find the match and then it can be called a “confirmed death.” If you never find that match they call it a “confirmed missing” and in most cases prior to the coroner of NYC deciding to issue Death Certificates early for that particular situation, you would have had to wait 3 to 7 years before it became “an official death” with a certificate signed by the Coroner of the state in which the death occurred. I thought all of it was supremely annoying, that’s how I felt the whole time they were explaining all this to us. In fact my dad said he thought they were being silly to do things the way they do. I asked what he meant and he replied “Well he (Eric) was here and now he’s gone. That’s enough proof that he isn’t here anymore.” To my dad maybe but not our government. They practically expect a pound of flesh to accompany everything you say as proof it really happened.
    I couldn’t even deal with what was happening, how was I supposed to get my teenage daughter to do it, especially one who had been having another unrelated but serious issue beFORE this occurred?
    I think I did a terrible job at it. They don’t come with a manual and they SURE as h*ll don’t arrive with anything telling you how to help them through homicide on a huge scale. They don’t even come with instructions for how to help them through what I call “normal homicides” which means only the murders didn’t make the news (not every incident does) not that they’re ordinary in any other way.
    When someone you love is murdered, you suddenly become nobody’s interest. I remember telling someone it had happened and losing that person forever, the person no longer talked to me, but the same kind of people can’t even wait to watch shows like Homicide Hunter. It’s never made any sense. I can’t figure that out, and it was even worse for my daughter. I took her out of school and had her do home-schooling for a while because people in high school were hideous about it. But it was the final straw for me when even a teacher acted that way so I took her out of school for a year.

  3. This post is very informative. I’ve seen the happiest of parents grieve throughout years because of losing one of their children. It’s not a matter of they will get over it but a matter of coping with the constant sadness it brings. I’ve read somewhere that a specific family tends to go do something fun whenever their family member’s death anniversary comes. Thank you for this post Elanor!

  4. my adult children 24 years old lost her husband 2 years ago and is struggling so much. I need help to her her. Can you give me suggestions. She can see the worry in my actions. Please advice me.

  5. Great post! Thank you for helping spread the message that taking care of ourselves and our health is one of the most powerful things we can do! Love this post! 🙂

  6. As a grieving mother with still 4 children in the house I needed to hear this. Thank you.

  7. Lauren Schneider, LCSWJanuary 14, 2015 at 4:21 pmReply

    Dear Eleanor,
    thank you for your informative and thoughtful blog on the importance for parents of dealing with their own grief so they can better parent their grieving children. I’ve written a short book for a on-profit called Our House Grief Support Center in Los Angeles, for parents which might be helpful to your readers. It’s called “Children Grieve Too: a handbook for parents of grieving children” This book is available on our website at: ourhouse-grief.org. I can be contacted at [email protected].

  8. Eleanor, As Maria Trozzi told me “As goes the parent, so goes the child”. Thank you so much for this article – and for sharing the information about Family Lives On.

  9. Just promoting a resource: The Center for Grieving Children, Portland, ME

  10. Thank you! Well done.

  11. Marty Tousley (@GriefHealing)January 13, 2015 at 9:28 amReply

    Thank you for this, Eleanor. I’ve often counseled parents that the best way to take care of their children’s grief is to take care of their own grief first. ♥

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