Some people are always caring for others, in one way or another. And for most parents, grandparents, and caregivers, there is no greater joy than taking care of those we love. But this (like so many other things) can change after loss, and this seems especially true for those caring for children.
I had a woman tell me recently that she was struggling to parent her toddler following the loss of her spouse. She was afraid that she had been crying too much, that she was scattered, preoccupied…that she just wasn’t herself.
Now it’s easy for me to validate this experience and tell her that of course she is struggling, how could she not be? But it wouldn’t necessarily help guide her in what direction to take next, and let’s face it – of all the things we don’t want to “mess up” after loss, parenting (or even grandparenting) may be the most important.
A lot of articles that talk about children and grief focus on what the kids’ needs are, and of course those are very important (click here for more resources on kids and grief). But I’m a firm believer that for kids to be okay, they need the adults in their life to guide them. So how to guide and care for a child when you’re grieving and barely able to get by? Some ideas and thoughts below:
- Know that it’s okay, no it’s more than okay, it’s IMPORTANT that you cry in front of them: As parents, grandparents and caregivers, we try and protect those we love from the pain and hardship of grief and loss. And I think we all recognize the importance of a parent’s strength and consistency when caring for children. But loss robs us of many things and that so often includes our ability to be strong or predictable. This leaves a lot of parents and grandparents feeling like sort of a mess in front of the kids, and I find many people I talk to try very hard not to cry in front of those they are caring for. But is that the best route? I think most of us can agree how innately intuitive and sensitive children are, and recognizing this fact should remind us that these children in our lives, even the very young, know that something very sad has happened and they’ll be looking to you to know how to respond. Which is probably exactly why most people are trying so hard to keep it together, but my question is – what does that really teach a child? Grief is already treated like the dirty secret that should happen behind closed doors…do we really have to hide it from the people we’re caring for as well? Now obviously there is a balance here, and that’s a tricky thing to find in life and especially in grief. But honest tears with our family along with honest discussions about how hard it is to lose someone we love will do more good than putting on a smile we don’t feel. Children can see right through that type of deceit, and regardless of the good intentions, it could cause more of a divide and disconnect. Worst of all it can make a child feel like there must be something wrong with them for the way they’re feeling if everyone around them seems to be coping so well.
- Recognize the need for time alone and self care: As important as it is to share your grief with the children in your life, there also needs to be some time or place where you can just let it all out – whatever that may look like. Maybe it’s taking the long way home and pulling over to scream and cry before going home and making dinner. Maybe it’s attending a local support group, or spending time alone with your faith community. Or perhaps it’s a night at the movies, or a walk outside with a good friend to clear your head. This isn’t an easy one because a family may cling a little tighter to one another after someone has been lost, and you may find it harder to leave or get away to take the time you need. But that’s the important word: “need”. As important as anything else on your to-do list right now, time to yourself is something you truly need. To restore, recharge and come back maybe just a little bit stronger.
- Get help: I’m not great at this. I don’t love asking other parents for help with rides for the kids, for example. Yet, I like when I’m able to help others. It seems we forget this when we’re the ones who need help. Most everyone I speak to likes to help their friends, family and neighbors when they can. And yet we consistently deny others this good feeling by trying to do everything ourselves. The people around you want to help. They are terrified of this loss, this grief, and the changes they see in you (to read more on that, click here). Giving them something tangible to do will actually make them feel less helpless, and you’ll be getting the help you need in return. It’s also worth recognizing that a child being closely affected by a loss could benefit from the bit of “fresh air” spending time with someone not immediately affected by the loss can provide.
- Recognize your limitations: Ah, if only we could all do this. All the time. If we could take a look at ourselves – our strengths and our weaknesses, what we have to offer and maybe where we seemingly fall short. Maybe we wouldn’t always be striving for perfection. And listen, when life is good, maybe perfect is all there is left to strive for. But after a loss, the expectations have to become more realistic. Grief affects us emotionally, physically, and socially (see our article on signs and symptoms here). Grief is exhausting. Caring for a child is exhausting. Grief is isolating. In many ways, parenting can be isolating. Grief makes us forgetful, disorganized, scattered…and any parent can tell you just how often they go through a regular day feeling that way. So again, it comes back to taking an honest look at grief and keeping an open conversation with the children you are caring for. Together, come up with ways to split up some duties in the house (of course, whatever is age appropriate) and work together on calendars and systems to remember important functions and dates that may be coming up. Children like responsibility more than we give them credit for, and everyone (including children) can do a little better in grieving if they’re keeping busy and feeling needed.
- Integrate your lost loved one into the life of the child: Finally, and maybe most importantly – say their name. Whoever you lost, whatever the relationship to the child in your life. If they had 17 years with a parent (or sibling or grandparent) they’ve lost or only 2, find a way to continue to make that person a part of their life. By saying their name, by displaying pictures, by sharing memories – even those who are very young will be able to feel that connection when the love is being kept alive. Find rituals and routines and ways to integrate this person into your daily life. Especially if this person was already a part of a child’s daily life, these rituals can serve as the reminder that while we may lose someone important in our life, the love we have for one another never really dies.
In the end, all of this pain and all of this struggle can actually bring a family much closer together. Like soldiers who have gone to war and come back, there is a camaraderie, closeness and fellowship amongst family members who have had to survive the impossible. Would we choose it? Of course not. But there is light to be found on the other side of loss, and sometimes it comes in the form of an unbreakable bond born out of devastation.
As you’re caring for so many others, you may need to find a place that’s just for you. Visit us at www.griefincommon.com and experience the connection and comfort that comes with finding those who understand.