In times of great personal loss, it is common for parents and caregivers to need to play two roles, both griever of their own loss and supporter of their child’s loss. In fact, as a child and family therapist at the Wendt Center, Stephanie Handel typically meets with the parents or caregivers first before beginning therapy with their child. She explains it is important that parents and caregivers “are always given their own space to fully acknowledge the depth of the loss… this gives the moment for me as a therapist to invite that parent to express their feelings, their thoughts, their experiences, their relationship with the person who died.”
In these sessions, parents and caregivers often share their concerns. Very often, they struggle to conceal their own grief from their child. However, Handel assures parents and caregivers that children, regardless of age, will always worry about a grieving parent. Instead of simply establishing a barricade between your child and your emotions, here are three things to keep in mind that will help you to balance the demands of grief and parenting.
1. Share your grief with your child in an age-appropriate way.
Emotions related to grief often come on us unexpectedly. We might be cleaning the kitchen one moment and huddled at the table sobbing the next. Parents and caregivers need the space to explore their own emotions and small children often have big eyes and ears. Because of grief, your child may see you in emotional pain for the first time in their lives. They may notice your behavior has changed. At any age, change is scary, but children may especially experience anxiety related to perceived differences in the household dynamic.
Remember though that children also look to the adults in their lives to model behavior, including in times of grief. It is important to talk to your child in an age-appropriate way about your grief, and reassure them that you can still take care of them and provide for their needs.
You might say, “I may look sad, but I can still get you dinner and get you to school on time and make sure our family does things together. However, I want you to know that you’re seeing me express these emotions because the death has really affected me.” Keep in mind, as parent or caregiver, your job is to take care of your child. Sharing your emotions openly and honestly with your child is important but should never put your child in a position where they feel like they have to take care of you. Even if your child seems especially mature for their age, they are still hearing you from the vantage point of very limited life experience. Because of this, Handel recommends aiming for communicating the broad themes about your grief.
Don’t worry: children are excellent at communicating their needs, including their need for more information. When your child feels ready to absorb more information, they will often come to you with questions. Know that, if you give them the space to do so, children will almost always advocate for their own needs, either verbally or through their behavior.
2. Maintain connections with other supportive adults.
It is important for parents and caregivers to maintain connections to supportive adults, whether that means staying involved with a community of worship, other family members, or seeking out a licensed professional counselor, like the staff at the Wendt Center. It is always valuable to stay connected when grieving.
When grieving and parenting, it is often inappropriate to share the full depth of your grief with your child. Grieving often requires unpacking a variety of complex emotions about our relationship to the deceased. Children typically do not know all aspects of the adults’ relationship, nor should they. Your child is grieving based on their own relationship with the deceased. Maintaining a connection to other supportive adults is one way a parent or caregiver can still discuss their relationship in its complex fullness while allowing space for their child to grieve in their own way.
3. Find ways in your daily life to move in and out of intense emotion.
There is no timeline or schedule for grief. You can think of grief like a wave that suddenly crashes against the shore, recedes, and then crashes again. Emotions can rise up unexpectedly and they can be overwhelming. The demands of caring for a child means you can’t only live in the throes of your own grief. Sometimes you need to think clearly enough that you can make decisions that are in the best interest of your child. However, you also need to practice self-care. When grieving and parenting simultaneously, it is important to make space for your own grief. That could mean ensuring you have some quiet minutes each day to cry or write in a journal or hold a conversation with your loved one who has died. “When you are grieving and really mindfully taking care of someone else who is also actively grieving, you have to find these sacred spaces that are very contained, individual, and personal so you can have your grief and then you can shift,” Handel says. The key is not to pretend your own grief doesn’t exist, but to carve out space in your life to explore it in its fullness.