The phrase “Sweet 16” always held a great deal of irony and disappointment for me. While most of my friends were celebrating their entry into adulthood, flashing newly minted drivers’ licenses and enjoying newfound freedom, I was grieving the death of my mom. Times were very different for me than for my peers.
During those early days and weeks after losing her, I recall vividly how I took nearly ALL my cues from my dad. How were we going to move forward? How was I going to pick myself up and continue? Without saying it, I was begging my dad to lead us out of this darkness, to provide all the answers, and to figure out the plan forward. I realize now that this was probably not a fair request of the man who was grieving the loss of his wife of nearly 20 years. But grief knows no boundaries. It isn’t logical. It’s messy and heavy and overwhelming. I didn’t understand my dad’s grief then as I do now. At that time, I just needed him. And yet, he was struggling, too.
Even in the depths of heartache, my dad did his best. I learned a lot about parenting a grieving child by watching him muddle through his own sorrow to support me as I struggled through mine. Let me take a moment to share some of the key learnings that I experienced first-hand from my dad and his parenting efforts through grief.
Whether we — as a father-daughter grief-fighting duo — got it right or not, we learned a lot along the way, and in some cases learned what NOT to do.
Have a plan for the special occasions.
My mom died in September, which meant we had Thanksgiving, Christmas, New Years and birthdays right around the corner. We didn’t plan ahead for any of these days, and as a result, I recall skipping Thanksgiving and enduring a pretty painful rendition of a traditional family Christmas. The only problem was, there was nothing traditional about it. Everything had changed.
When I work with clients through grief, we address special occasions head on and actually create a plan for how to spend the day. In many cases, I’ll encourage clients to do something so drastically different from how the day is traditionally celebrated that there are fewer opportunities to slip into despair. In fact, I often encourage them to find a way memorialize or celebrate their loved one, such as volunteering for a cause near to their heart or taking a trip to a new “Happy Place” that brings about peace and healing.
Talk about the awkward stuff.
Inevitably, the topics of dating again, cleaning out the closets of a loved one, or even moving out of the family home will come up, and these can be very challenging conversations to have with your grieving children. While a widowed spouse may feel it’s time to begin dating again, their children may disagree or take issue with it. These are conversations that need to be had early and often with the intent of truly hearing everyone’s perspective. If a child has an issue with a parent dating, perhaps they will adjust better if the child is able to set some ground rules that they can be comfortable with. Involving a child in some of the decisions will help them feel less out of control. Ultimately, your children do not want to see you in pain, just as you don’t wish them to feel pain. Reaching common ground can be a beneficial approach.
Keep it consistent.
If at all possible, minimize changes in your child’s life. Sometimes the death of one parent makes this challenging, but consistency is very important to children while they heal from grief. If you must move from your family home, consider finding affordable housing in the same school district and help them stay connected to friends who are healthy influences on them. Keep them involved in the things they enjoy, such as sports, arts, etc. Keep close friends of their lost parent in their lives as well as family who you may otherwise become estranged. These relationships all hold a piece of the puzzle for your child that connects them to their lost parent.
Make good choices.
I have counseled grievers who take the phrase “YOLO” a bit too seriously, which can be dangerous especially when you have children. During the initial grieving period, your child needs to feel that you are reliable, and their sense of security is on stable footing. To lose a parent to death, but then to “lose” a parent to incessant partying, alcohol use or even depression can really rock a child to his core. Be present and mindful that your child needs you to be the captain of the ship that is now your reality. If you weren’t the primary caretaker before, you must learn to become one now. Your responsibility needs to become helping your child through this grief that they are not yet developmentally mature enough to navigate alone.
Feel ALL the feelings.
Allow laughter, silliness, joy, humor and enjoyment to join your family on your grief journey. Sometimes I think we believe that we need to act a certain way after we lose a loved one. When you have children in your home who are grieving the loss of a close family member, it’s important to model that life is about ALL the ups and downs and we’re entitled to ALL the feelings … not just the bad ones.
When I look back to the days where my dad and I muddled through our grief together, I am reminded that the most important thing is that we were together. When he decided to buy a Harley and hit the road to clear his mind, he almost always asked me to join him. I often did … sometimes with tears streaming down my cheeks as we rode, but often with a giant grin facing up to the sky.