“My kids are grieving, but they won’t see a counselor. It’s all on me.”
As a widow and a Mom, you’re learning to cope with your grief and supporting your children through theirs, as well. To be a single parent, grieving widow, income earner, laundress and chef - and simultaneously try to teach and support your children about grief can feel overwhelming and frightening. But you don’t have to do this alone -- and you don’t need to become a grief expert or family therapist.
You’re the mom. The Parent. There’s a ton of resources and support available to help you as a parent while you’re all grieving together.
Here are a few things to consider:
When it comes to talking to your child about grief and death, it’s important to consider their age and developmental ability. Here’s a chart that lists age and developmental stage for children, along with the impact grief has at each age. But, even if the chart says they're ready to process existential questions about death and the afterlife, you know your child better than anyone else. Remember to trust your intuition.
Grief is a never-ending process for kids. As they grow, develop, and reach developmental milestones, they may re-grieve or revisit grief. For instance, my youngest son was just 20 days old when his father died. At four years old, he talked about “all those times I held and kissed my dad and would read books to him.” At age eight, out of the clear blue nowhere, he said, “Hey, 20-day old babies can’t hold and kiss their dads and read them books!” Suddenly he was developmentally able to reprocess his age at the time his dad died. Realizing this led to a few weeks of talking and tears about all he missed experiencing with his dad because he was a newborn when his dad died.
As a parent, it can feel like backtracking through old territory you thought you had cleared. In fact, these resurfacing conversations and emotional bumps are signs of integration and growth. I learned this for myself by having a front seat in my children’s lives as they grew and we continued to talk about and process grief together.
*A special word for helping kids between the ages of 2-5, the age of repetition. Children at this age love, and need, to be told the same story over and over again. You may experience this phenomenon by reading the same bedtime story what seems like 500 times a week. Repetition is developmentally important, and that comes into play with grief, too. Your child may need to repeat the story of dad’s death over and over or hear every morning that he’s gone and can't come home again.
All of this sucks and is excruciating for you, mama. The repeated pain is like putting your hand on a hot stove every day because someone you love has asked you to. But it’s important to do it. It doesn’t mean your child has memory issues, is death-obsessed, or that you are for repeating the story. It’s all typical for children at the age of repetition.
I wish I could reach out and grab your hand! You’re not alone, and this is fucking hard work. What help do you need as you face each day with your sweet baby asking you the same painful question again and again? Find a counselor, or get on the phone with your tribe, or your friend angels and cry your eyes out. Scream! Swear! Do what you gotta do, but know that you’re doing amazing things for your children by meeting them right where they are and giving them what they need.
To Cry and Not To Cry
My two-year-old distributed kleenex to each person the day we planned David’s memorial service. I will never forget this beautiful toddler walking around the room in his diaper offering tissues and a hug to everyone who cried during the meeting. We reassured him that we were OK - we were sad because we were missing Daddy.
Crying in front of your kids is a good thing, but there are different kinds of crying. So, to distinguish - the crying I’m speaking about here is the gentle tears and maybe a little soft sob that catches in your throat. It’s truly powerful to show your kids you’re struggling, too.
The kind of crying that might not be helpful is full tsunami crying - a scream/cry with a wail. That may be too much for your children to witness but check with them. Ask if your tears unnerve them and then talk about it.
Sharing your tears with your kids can be helpful. By crying in front of them you:
- "Model" having feelings and demonstrate a healthy way to cope with the intensity of emotion.
- Raise the permission level for them to share their pain with you.
- Give them an opportunity to demonstrate compassion for you. Let them bring you tissues and hug you for reassurance.
- Crying openly like this helps to create a family culture of care and love. To be clear - tears aren’t a sign of weakness, but a sign of emotional health and courageous sharing.
Your Grief Tribe
You’re going to need to get one for yourself. You can search for a local support group by calling local hospice organizations, hospitals, therapists through psychology today, Meetups, and Facebook. Or get together with other people with kids who are going through this too.
The best way to support your kids in their grief is by having your own support. Find a therapist you feel can help you. Also, find childcare and take time for yourself. Soak in a hot bath without interruptions or have dinner out with a girlfriend. Do what you need to do for self-care to keep your cup as full as possible so you can navigate this intensely emotional experience with your children.
For many, the best tribe support has come through an online and in-person support group. Tell the universe you’re looking for your people and you may be surprised by who shows up in your inbox or on the other end of your phone.
Furry Family Members
We got our dog five years after my husband died. I waited that long because it felt like I had plenty of responsibility and chaos without adding a furry family member to the mix. But my heart kept telling me our loud, happy household could use the healing presence of a dog and I wish I’d brought one home sooner!
Joey, our 9-pound rescue poodle, rescued us. He brought us constant compassionate support, a healing presence, and joy. He’s helped my boys learn responsibility by taking care of him. I can’t say enough about the powerful healing that happens to my boys when they’re with Joey.
Over the years, whenever they were in tears about missing their father, they’d ask to hold Joey while they cried. Joey’s presence brought an energy of love and healing like nothing else has all of these years. Believe in the magical healing properties of our furry friends!
Death Talk at Dinner
Make grief a part of your family’s culture and regular conversations. Kids are curious and may have a thousand questions.
“Where do we go after we die?”
“What happened to my dad’s body after he died?”
“Will I get sick like he did?”
“Will you die, too?”
“What do my friends think about me now?
Making it safe to talk about these things lets your kids know it’s safe for them to feel whatever they’re feeling. This is what we want because feelings aren’t bad - they’re information. Welcome them with open arms so they can teach us what we need to know and helps us release what needs to go.
Over the years, I’ve often thought my family could be known as the House of Macabre after going into a deep dive at dinner about the after-life or what happens to a body after it’s cremated. Some families talk about politics, religion, or the weather - we include a regular serving of death at our table.
If you spend enough time on this topic, you know that talking about death is talking about life and about how to live. You’re talking about what you believe in spiritually, what gives your life meaning, love, pain, and growing. It’s all in there and it is all welcome at our table.
Grief is hard. So. Hard.
Please remember that the best way you can help your children through their grief is to get help for you. Remember the oxygen mask example - put yours on first so you can help others. Self-care, therapy and a tribe who understand and get you will go a long way to bringing you the love and support you need for this journey. You can find my contact information here on the site, reach out and I’ll answer you right away
You’ve got this mama. I believe in you.