Becoming a Parent After the Death of a Parent

After someone you love dies, almost all “blessed events” thereafter become a mix of happy-type emotions and sad-type emotions.  In the midst of celebrations for graduations, promotions, new homes, engagements, marriages, births, grandbabies, big wins, and little wins – you may find your mind wandering from your present-moment elation to contemplate the thought “I wish [insert loved one’s name] we’re here”.

One experience that seems to bring up a tumult of bittersweet thoughts and emotions for grieving people is that of becoming (and being) a parent after the death of a parent. I know this because I’ve laid bare about one bajillion words on the subject myself and also because we receive quite a lot of email from readers about their worries, concerns, anecdotes, and experiences with it.

I’d like to take a few minutes to talk about some of the reasons why being a parent after the death of a parent can be hard and some of the reasons why it’s great. However, I realize that I can really only speak to my own experience.

Parent/child relationships and family dynamics vary so wildly that what is true for me may not be true for someone else. So, while I hope that something here resonates with you, I encourage readers to add their own experiences in the comments below.


Why being a parent after the death of a parent is hard:

1. The deceased parent can’t share in the news

“When we have joy we crave to share, we remember them.”

~ Sylvan Kamens and Rabbi Jack Riemer

If your parent died before the birth of your child, you may experience grief and sadness because you never got to share this news with your loved one.

Those who had an – I tell my parent everything – type relationship with their parent may have acutely felt their inability to talk to their parent the moment they realized they were becoming a parent themselves. Others may find themselves daydreaming about the intimate or elaborate way they would have shared the news.

 

And though people usually think of newly expectant parents exploding with elation the moment they realize they’re having a baby, the truth is that the idea of becoming a parent is often met with a mix of emotions that range anywhere from happiness to trepidation and fear. Whether this is your first child or your fourth, having a baby is a big deal and many people will long for the support of their parent as they begin this journey.

2. The knowledge that they will never meet your child and vice versa

Personally, something that I grieve over and over again is the fact that my mother will never know my children and my children will never know my mother. I think about how much they would have enjoyed each other and it feels tragic to me that their lives never intersected.

3. You feel a teensy bit jealous of those who still have their parents

No one likes to feel jealous, I certainly don’t, but sometimes you just can’t help it. It’s hard to see your friend’s parents show up for the soccer games and dance recitals and know that (a) this is something your parent never got to do and (b) your child won’t have your parent around to cheer them on in life.

 

4. You wish you had their help, support, or advice

There’s no end to the scenarios in which a parent might wish for the help and support of their parent. For example..

  • You may wish you had your parent to help you after your new baby is born
  • Practically, you could really use their help watching your kids while you’re at work or when you need a night out.
  • You’d love to be able to call and ask your parent for their advice when the baby runs a fever, your kindergartener is having trouble adjusting at school, or your teenager is acting like a teenager.

And though it’s very likely you have other people for help and support, no one can completely fill the void left by your parent because it’s often that one particular parent’s support and advice that you long for.

5. Your child’s childhood reminds you of your own childhood.

That’s a mouthful, but what I mean is this – when you become a parent, you relive many of the experiences you had as a child, through the lens of being a parent. This may cause you to wonder what it was like for your own parent when you were a child; it may give you a greater appreciation for the things they did for you, and you may feel flooded by old memories.

I put this on the ‘why it’s hard’ list because there’s often a sadness felt when a memory feels particularly sad or nostalgic. Or when you can’t reach out to ask your parent a question about the past or to show your appreciation for them.

That said, this experience can actually be both painful and pleasant. Experiencing childhood from an adult perspective may allow you to connect with the memory of your parent in different ways, to feel gratitude for everything they gave you, and to reflect upon warm and comforting memories of the past.


Why being a parent after the death of a parent is great:

1. Your kids may provide you with a sense of purpose and joy.

My eldest daughter was born less than a year after my mother died. Like many other new parents I wondered, will I be a good mom? And I had the added concern of, will my grief impact my ability to be a good mom? This is a concern I have since heard expressed by many new or expecting parents who are grieving.

Again, I can only speak for myself, but for me becoming a mother was a light in a dark place. It gave me a sense of purpose, it forced me to look outside of my self, it was a distraction from my grief, and it also connected me to my grief.

I think it’s important to clarify, I am in no way saying – have a kid, they’ll make you feel better! Because turns out, they’re also a lot of stress and responsibility! The if, when, how, and with whom of becoming a parent will be different for everyone. And for some, the added responsibility of being a parent while grieving can increase stress and making coping with grief more difficult.

All I can say is that for me, being a parent has given me joy and purpose during some of my darkest days. Also, kids sometimes say and do really funny things – so that’s an added bonus.

2. Being a parent allows you to continue your bond with your deceased parent

When we use the phrase ‘continue your bond’ what we really mean is to stay connected, to carry on, to remember, and to honor. Though we hope this is pretty intuitive, continuing bonds is a super important grief concept that you can learn more about here, here, and here.

Being a parent allows you to connect with your loved one’s memory in a number of different ways.

  • Through the stories and memories you share with your child: I love sharing stories with my children about my mother, just like I remember my mother sharing stories with me about her mother. My daughters never had the opportunity to meet my mother, yet I feel as though they know so much about her and the type of parent she was.
  • Through the rituals and traditions you carry on: When we talk about ritual and tradition, we mean big things like holiday traditions and small things like a phrase they used to say every night when they tucked you into bed. When you carry on a ritual or tradition that was passed down to you by your parent, you create the opportunity to connect with your memory of them and also to share the memory with your children.
  • Through the lens of being a parent yourself: As we mentioned above, being a parent allows you to connect with your parent in new ways. The relationships we have with our deceased loved ones aren’t static. They don’t get frozen in time, they continue to evolve and change. So you may understand your parent in new and different ways at the age of 20, 30, 40, 50 and so on. And the things you did to connect with your parent at 20 may be different than those things that you do now as a parent. For example, things like carrying on their traditions, following their example as a parent, learning from their mistakes, adopting their values, and so on.

As noted, this article is a reflection of my own experience and some of what our readers have shared with us over the years. Realistically, we’ve only been able to represent a fraction of what people experience in being and becoming parents after the death of a parent. For that reason, we hope you will share some of your own perspectives in the comments below.

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February 21, 2019

10 responses on "Becoming a Parent After the Death of a Parent"

  1. The realness of it after 7 years.

    Not everyone has a peaceful passing and the aftermath of family pain can be heavy. You don’t really know people until someone in your family dies. People grieve in individual ways and, while the image of a supportive family is lovely to think of, the reality can be much different, and very isolating.

    Their estate—people change during grief. If your relationship with your family wasn’t great to begin with, be ready for strange behaviors to emerge. People drop off the map. Some tell un-truths. Your other parent tries to pawn things off onto you because their grief doesn’t know what to do with their dead spouse’s things. Her clothes and old christmas decorations are now supposed to live in your own home as memorials to what’s gone forever. People look to you to fill in the hole she left behind. Inheritances get disputed because people try to convince everyone else in the family ‘they knew what mom really wanted’ even though her Will is explicit. The insanity of your dysfunctional, grieving family resurfaces leaving little choice but to disconnect from them even more.

    You turn to religion. People push religion on you. You try for as long as you can. But then it’s horrible and the experience provokes the same disappointment and trauma that made you walk away from it years ago.

    You have fantasies about being ‘adopted’ by someone else’s family because your standing invitation for family holidays was buried with her. And people try to help you feel relieved that you have the freedom to celebrate your holidays how you choose. But all that you can think about is being the mom without a mom, and that no one wraps a gift just for you anymore.

    Your in-laws disappoint you because they don’t have the skills to support a devastated daughter-in-law. You never got along with them that well in the first place. But it still feels like betrayal that they didn’t come to her funeral. They never ask what it is you really need and come through. And their hurt feelings always seem to get in the way of being supportive grandparents, which drives home the reality of not having your own parent around even more.

    Jealousy—this is the part that hurts most. Seeing other people with their parent and knowing you will never be able to see yours again, to touch their aging hand or hug them or ask them anything ever again. Your mom’s cell phone number is still in your contact list. Death is final and processing that takes a long time. And trying to express this aloud to anyone who still has their parent(s) (which is most people at your age) feels like yelling into the wind. No one who hasn’t experienced the loss can really hear your pain, and it’s not their responsibility to make you feel better by feeling bad about having their own parents around. But you really want someone to hear, you really need a loving friend to look into your eyes knowingly as you describe the bereft feeling that there is no one to help with the myriad stages of life that need support and wisdom from the one that knew you best. Therapists are wonderful, but they’re not paid to have your family over for Thanksgiving. A hole is always there and nothing can give you that blessed sunshine of the spotless mind.

    Having kids during the death of your own beloved parent is a test of mettle. Your kids can grieve grandparents they have never met, did you know that? You have to not only take care of your own grief but also the grief of your children—for years and years. It’s a requirement to be super human and it’s exhausting.

    And 7 years later the weather will change to the season of her death and you won’t notice it right away. And you will be freaking out over various things in your life, feeling unhappy and dissatisfied. And your husband (if your marriage was strong enough to survive your nervous breakdown and family abandonment) will say to you as you rage at some trivial thing “Wait, what day is it? You’re mom died around this time.” And you’ll weep on the floor, feeling your heart and stomach wrench from your body as it did in the moments after she passed at hospice. Its been 7 years and it still hurts.

  2. Thank you for writing this article. I have waited most of my adult life for the best situation in which to bring a child into this world. To give them the wonderful childhood that I was blessed with. My father passed away in 2007 after a 6 week battle with cancer and I knew then I was most sad that my future children wouldn’t get to have a relationship with him. I finally found the man I wanted to have a child with, but we weren’t lucky in getting pregnant ( I am now in my late 30s). My mom died last February 2018 after a remarkably similar 6 week battle with cancer. I had lost my anchors. I gave up hope when it came to having children, one because I was older and it hadn’t happened in over 3 years of trying, and two because I didn’t know what kind of parent I would be without them and what kind of life my children would have without their wonderful presence. Also, I was angry my parents didn’t get to experience the joy of being grandparents, they would’ve been awesome ones. I recently found out I am about 6 weeks pregnant. I am overjoyed, scared, sad, and in wonderment at the same time. Thank you so much for this article. It helps knowing I’m not alone in these thoughts and that they are normal and okay.

  3. My story is a little similar but also a lot different. In Nov/Dec of 2013 my dad asked me and my fiancé for a baby. I was only 22 and my fiancé was 32. We had only been together a year by this time and I was not ready for a child. We laughed it off but he was serious. In Jan of 2014 my dad passed away unexpectedly! I lost my best friend in the blink of an eye and my whole hopes and dreams were meir memories. Fast forward to today July 2019 we are still together but no children. I am 29 years old and I’m afraid to have a baby without my dad-best friend. How can I make a pregnancy announcement without the other half of my heart.

  4. Wow — I wish I’d read this article 25 years ago! It couldn’t resonate with me more, even after all these years.

    I became pregnant with my one and only child just a few months after I lost my mother. My father had died back in 1973. What made me sad then — and makes me sad to this day — is the fact that my daughter never got to know her grandparents. They would have absolutely adored each other and there just isn’t enough of that in the world. A small army of wonderful aunts and uncles eased the path, but it’s just not the same.

  5. I also lost my mother 6 months before finding out I was pregnant. Her death was sudden and unexpected, a week after her 39th birthday. She suffered an aneurysm. She went to bed after coming home early from her job as a Registered Nurse due to a severe migraine and simply didn’t wake up. It was horrifying and the worst moments in my life so far. I had to call my family and tell them everything. I was 18.
    6 months later, after moving back to my hometown to where my siblings now had to live with our father, I discovered I was pregnant. I wasn’t processing my grief in any way and to be honest, I still haven’t. I’ve cried. Believe me, I’ve cried and pleaded and begged for her back. I’ve wished and wished to have her hold me and tell me she loves me.
    But I had to move on. I had to get a job and have a baby and be a mother and try to maintain a relationship and pay bills and do all those other adult things. And I did them well. I am a success, by other’s definitions. I have worked through adverse events and come out the other side with glowing reviews. I worked through a retail store, moving between departments, gaining valuable experience over 8 years while putting myself through school. I own my home. I got married. But what that did was put my grief on a shelf and hide it away. It often gets forgotten over time, but it doesn’t make it go away.
    My daughter is everything to me. But most experiences I have with her remind me of my mother and what we are missing. Often times, I am able to tell myself that my mother would be proud, that she’s always there with me in spirit and it helps keep the pain at bay. Yet, I do still feel jealous when I see an older mother and her daughter, with or without young children towing along, reminding me that I lost my best friend. That I don’t get to share that best friend with my daughter. That I didn’t get to have my mother to give me breastfeeding advice or to show me how to rock my baby to sleep or how to lay her in her crib or when to feed her what foods.
    My mother wasn’t there on my wedding day. She wasn’t there to help me plan it. She wasn’t there to tell me the order of the procession, or whether to do the first dance or the cake first. She wasn’t there to give me “something borrowed” or to watch me cry as I said my vows. She didn’t get to watch my daughter walk down the aisle in her yellow lace dress, with her red hair in curls. She didn’t get to laugh when my daughter tossed all the flowers out of her basket before she even reached the rows of my family, patiently waiting in the July sun.
    All these little things are things they don’t tell you when people talk about losing a parent when you’re young. And things that nobody dares mention when you’re having your own baby. I’ve only begun to open that box of grief that I’ve kept on the shelf. I am now a supportive counselor and am working on designing a grief support group for my community and have realized that I still have grief that needs to be examined. Of course, it will never go away. Loss defines and shapes us. Molds our personalities and our relationships. But we need to discuss it. To unpack it and shed light on it.

  6. I posted your article on FB this morning with my comments. My daughter Levi died in 2016, my mother a year later. Following are my comments.
    My father died about midway through my only pregnancy, and I know of others who are filled with joy in the upcoming birth of a child while trying to deal with the heartbreak of “They’ll never meet each other.” This article talks about some things to expect on this journey through happiness and sadness.
    Some things I knew were coming:
    I wanted my Daddy to walk around her crib whistling softly and jingling his keys. Mama said it always made her smile although she really wished he wouldn’t wake us up, but it was so cute the way he always tried to look innocent. Like what? I was just whistling. I wasn’t trying to wake them up.
    I wanted Levi to remember what it felt like to reach up and grasp that forefinger as they walked together because his hands were so huge you couldn’t hold his hand and feel so safe and loved as when your little hand was wrapped around that finger.
    I wanted her to hear his off-key version of “You are my sunshine” and maybe even the questionable version of “I’m a Yankee Doodle Dandy” that Mama would never let him finish.
    Some things I never expected?
    To look into her eyes while I was bathing her and suddenly see my father looking back at me.
    To watch her walk around the oak tree he had planted from a sprouted acorn. She’d hold up her hand like she was grasping a finger, chat merrily as they made a few circles around the tree, then say goodbye to what she called her “Purple Monster” each time right at the spot where he died.
    To find in her written works a story that starts off with a bouncing ball she describes as one she used to play with and evolves into an imagined conversation with a man she’d never known, her grandfather.
    I hope this article helps others who are facing this situation. Maybe it will help you to know some things to expect, but it could never predict everything.

  7. My story is a little different and I am surely struggling with grief, sorrow, depression and anxiety.

    On 6/10/16 my best friend died by suicide.
    On 8/5/16 my 85 year old mom broke her hip.
    On 3/25/17 my mom returns home, she never walked again.
    On 2/16/18 my husband and I take in my 11 y/o nephew to raise him. His dad is on the streets and mom is dysfunctional.
    On 7/5/18 my mom passed away, sudden cancer that metastasized to her brain.

    The story below is the shape life took…
    After my mom broke her hip she spent seven months of “physical therapy rehab” at 2 skilled nursing facilities where she had to be hospitalized 3 times due to neglect, the third time put her in ICU, a coma and almost dead. My mom then spent 9 more weeks at a long term hospital and then an acute rehab before FINALLY coming home on 3/25/17. She never walked again. 15 months at home, some good times until the last 3 months. Hospital stays, fluid on lungs, oxygen tanks, sleepiness, drooling, then coughing up blood and back to hospital again. In May 2018 she was diagnosed with cancer and sent home on home hospice. Since breaking her hip, I have been helping a couple days a week (mostly fighting for her health rights in the skilled nursing facilities) ; they live 80 miles from me, it was a strain on my marriage and very small business. When hospitalized, I would be there for a week to help her return home, helping with transfers till she got strong enough that my dad could take over.
    I spent two solid months at my parents while my mom was on home hospice. I was the 24/7 caregiver for those 2 months. Lots to still processs with trauma.
    I have been home since the end of July 2018, it has been very difficult finding calm and peace. My nephew will be 12 in a few months, he still
    lives with us. We take him to a counselor once a week to learn coping and communication skills and to work through his own trauma caused by his parents. It is challenging dealing with my brother and his wife. Meanwhile my dad still lives 80 miles away. We are trying to get him to move closer but there are financial hurdles. I love my parents dearly, I love my nephew…. but it has been a very hard road and I am missing some of the life my husband and I shared before the pileup of tragedy. I am seeing a counselor and trying to processs and also work with “new normals”.
    Thanks for letting me share.

  8. I thank God that I found your website. This is the first time I felt I had to comment.
    My dad passed from an accident on my due date (of the first grandchild on either side). I gave birth to my son two weeks later. The last thing my dad gave me was a wood carving of a bird feeding it’s chick. If I had to leave my home in a hurry, that is the one thing I would grab. It symbolizes the circle of life, and knowing I have to be there for my son. I count that time as one of the hardest I’ve ever dealt with and it has helped prepare me for many more losses in my journey.

  9. We were overjoyed yet totally heartbroken when my daughter announced on Christmas day she was pregnant. My wife-her Mom had passed away in August after a short hard-tough battle with lung cancer that had mets to her brain (20 tumors). So add to the shock when we got her diagnosis in June and what we had to do-see and endure and then the grief maximized at her final passing etc…when my daughter made the announcement there was complete immediate sorrow inside but outside “wow-Congrats” for her to see. Yes not long after the “God how much she would have loved this” sentiments came out but myself and her sister and brothers could not show her total depression at her wonderful news. Yet inside we were all so hurt at who was missing this! I cant imagine the sadness my daughter had to overcome when she realized she was pregnant with all that was going on with her Mom and her battle. So now I am a grandfather again and all I do feel is “she should be here for this”. Yes I show outward happiness and keep my feelings to myself- I cant do anything but. But when my wife passed I had wished it were me instead-then when I found this out – again it should have been hear hearing this instead. I always said my wife should have been the one granted the longer life-she would have really been the wonderful grandma-me as grandpa? Just a sidekick-addition who could pitch in with her. But it was her wonderful persona that made her the ultimate grandma- as her entire family said she had a gift- she was a “baby whisperer” and provided that to all her sisters and nieces children! Unfortunately when she retired to finally get to the life she wanted as grandma-one she worked so hard to earn- the ugly hideous uncaring disease swept her away from us. She did have some wonderful time with her grandaughter and grandson- but to have added another would have put her over the edge of happiness! Sigh….so missed- so loved 6 months later…So unfair.

  10. Thank you for writing down these thoughts and feelings. They are identical to mine. I unexpu lost our Dad 3 months before learning I was pregnant with our first child. Nearly three years later we lost my Mom when I was a few months pregnant with our second child. Everything you wrote in the article Mirrors my own experience with parenting after the loss of parents.

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