Parenting is HARD…but parenting after child loss is much HARDER.
We all lost our children in different ways and at different ages, so I can't speak to all situations. However, I can share my experience of parenting a teenaged boy after his sister died.
How do you take care of yourself, grieve the deep pain of losing your child, yet be present and effectively parent your other children?
I made the decision early on in my grief journey that as a family we would pick up the pieces despite the devastation and we would learn to be a family of three, even though there would always be someone missing.
I felt that my then-15-year-old son deserved a plugged in mom. He needed someone who believed in him and who could support him through the worst part of his life and I wanted him to have a stable home.
Attempting to control all aspects of your surviving child’s life is a common characteristic seen in most bereaved parents. We become hyper-aware of what CAN happen. Often we are sick with worry and try to protect our surviving kids from anything and everything. However, the long term impact of over-protectiveness on surviving siblings is associated with poor self-esteem and problematic mental health as per studies conducted by Sheffield university.
Alternatively, bereaved parents can become lenient. We may feel incapable of parenting or just don’t want our surviving children to miss out on anything, so we let them do whatever they like. Or, we may flip-flop between strict and lenient which leaves our kids confused.
No matter their age, kids look to their parents for guidance, especially when something happens that they have no experience in. They learn to grieve by watching us grieve.
Tips to parent your surviving children after the loss of a child: 1. Taking good care of yourself is important for both you and your children. Researchers have found that bereaved parents who are less depressed are better able to provide the care their children need.
2. Quality time strengthens the positive bonds your children have with you and with the family as a whole which promotes children’s healthy social and emotional development. This lets your surviving children know that they are important too. One on one time with each child, as well as family time is very important as you learn to put the pieces back together.
3. Listening with warmth, acceptance, and understanding. Listening shows you care. Active listening tells your children that they matter to you, so give them your FULL attention and use statements like “tell me more”. Try not to judge. Feelings are neither right nor wrong. Sometimes older children/teens can talk more easily when there is no eye contact. For my son, it’s being in the car or sitting beside each other on the park bench that works best for him.
4. Establish consistent, effective family rules. Normal development in kids comes from having boundaries, even during grief. Sometimes it can be hard to make and maintain rules because we don't want to be 'hard' on our kids, knowing that they are hurting too. Over time, researchers have found that kids with clear rules and consequences have fewer mental health problems. They learn that messing up happens and it isn't the end of the world. They also learn responsibility.
5. Include your surviving children in plans. While their coping may be different from yours, know that birthdays and anniversaries and triggers will happen for your surviving children just like they will for you. Try to include your kids in planning things together to help you cope as a family. Get their ideas and input for observing these special days.
6. Your words and messaging Be honest with your kids about how you are feeling. It’s OK for your kids to see you having crappy days but be careful with your messaging. Say things like "I’m having a rotten day. I just miss Sally so much. Thanks for listening." It’s good to talk about it. Use simple and concrete words – died and death. Not slipped away, left us, in a better place. Those words make it sound like the person that died might come back. Be honest and straightforward, especially with younger children.
At all costs, avoid saying the words “my life is over now!” This was a BIG ah-ha moment for me. This makes our surviving children feel like they are not enough and that the child who died was more loved.
7. Ask for help – close friends, neighbours, extended family….
Talk regularly with your kids, but don’t force the topic. Open the door to sharing. Let them know they can approach you anytime and ask anything. Try counselling for your child with an appropriate therapist who is well versed in grief. Your child may feel like they are burdening you with their sorrows and may be more likely to open up when you aren’t there. And that’s ok.
8. Be patient. Grief is long-lasting and unpredictable for everyone.
The first year and a half after Katie’s death were the hardest with our son. There were days I felt like I needed to take my grief for Katie and put it on the side. There were days I shed more tears for my living son than my deceased daughter…and felt guilty. But after more than 6 ½ years, I can say that my son has grown into a responsible, caring, empathic, wise-beyond his years 22-year-old man. He is pursuing the career of his dreams and has landed a dream apprenticeship even amid these crazy economic times.
And some more good news: the University of Bergen found that 58 percent of mothers reported that they grew closer to their surviving children over time. We are definitely a closer family now and I feel like we will continue to grow together as time goes by. I feel like my son has his feet firmly planted on the ground and has learned that he can get through the worst that life can throw at him.
The biggest thing you can do? Give yourself grace. You are doing the best you can. There are no perfect parents. I still make mistakes. I lose my patience, mess up, say the wrong thing, and react the wrong way. But I’m trying to let go of the pressure and guilt of parenting after losing a child, and give myself grace instead. I've learned to get back up and keep trying and I do that because I hope my son will mirror this grace in his own life and one day with his own children.
Sending you all love and strength.
PS: I have created a FREE video course for grieving mothers. This 5-part series address the common questions and struggles that moms experience after the loss of a child. You can request it here.