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.
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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