After Shawn died, I had to plan the funeral and make sure that we would be financially stable and learn how to fix things around the house. But even in those early days, I knew I only had one real goal: make sure my kids remained emotionally whole.
The thing is, I knew that it was possible. Yes, I was older when my mom died, but she was sick for many years. And yet, I was able to survive her death. There were a few reasons for this, but the main one was that I had my dad.
So I knew that I could get my kids through this major horror. I just wasn’t sure how I’d do it.
Turns out, I’m not the only person who feels this way. People write me all the time about parenting, even though I’m no expert in this area.
“How can I help my kids through this terrible time?” they ask.
A few weeks ago, I wrote an article in the Post about how to help grieving children, and since I actually interviewed experts, it’s a good place to start. But there’s so much that couldn’t fit in that article. What do you do, for example, when it’s “donuts with dads” day, and your kid doesn’t have a living father?
This is the sort of thing that may seem trivial, but is the daily existence of many widowed parents. So here are three additional ideas that have helped me:
First, work with your kid’s school. Maybe it’s a highly resourced school and maybe it’s not, but at a bare minimum, keep the lines of communication open with your child’s teacher. As a teacher myself, I can’t tell you how important it is to know that a child has been through a trauma, even if it’s been more than a year. Furthermore, if it’s an option, ask the school counselor to meet with your child on a repeated basis. Yes, I did grief counseling with my kids (and I recommend it) but that was just one hour a week. At school, they saw the counselors much more regularly, and if something came up during the day, they knew there was a safe space for them to go. For example, my daughter ate lunch in the counselor’s office for much of the rest of the year after Shawn died. Also, communicating with your kid’s school may help them to be more aware about activities like the “mother-son dance” that can be quite exclusive.
Second, find new ways of connecting with your kid(s), and establish new routines where they are needed. Mother’s and Father’s Day can be minefields, but so can a variety of other events like birthdays and other special days. My best practice around how to find new ways to celebrate certain holidays has been to ask my kids how they’d like to celebrate. What do they want to do? What would make them feel good? You may not want to go to the toy store or the amusement park, but trust me, you are not spoiling your kids by doing something like that on their first Father’s Day without their dad. You are protecting them.
Finally, talk about the parent that has died, and encourage the other adults who surround your kids to do the same. Whenever a friend says something like, “Austin, your dad would love to see how much you’ve improved your baseball swing. He loved watching you play,” I can see the positive effect it has on my son. Actually, maybe my best example of this was something that happened a few weeks ago. Claire’s friend Niko was at our house, and we were talking about how the Nationals had recently won the World Series. Niko and Claire have been friends since birth. Niko’s mother helped me plan Shawn’s funeral and her father carried Shawn’s casket. So, of course, Niko grieved the loss of Shawn too. That day a few weeks ago, Niko turned to Claire and me and said, “I was really missing Mr. Shawn last week. He would have loved to see the Nats win the World Series. He really loved baseball, didn’t he?” Claire agreed, and they excitedly talked about the World Series while I tried not to cry. Because that simple sentence told me that Claire has a safe space with Niko to talk about her dad. Niko’s a great kid, but I also know that she didn’t come up with this all on her own – I’m sure it was a product of her parents deciding to talk about Shawn in their everyday lives. I’m so grateful for that.
These are just a few ideas and they are obviously not the only things a parent can do. I’m just scratching the surface – there are many articles and entire books written on this topic. I’ve read many of them, and yet they never really answered my underlying question, and the underlying question every parent of a grieving child wants to know:
“Are my kids going to be okay?”
So when parents ask me this, here is what I always say, no matter who I’m talking to:
Yes, your kids are going to be okay. They are going to be okay because they have YOU and you are asking this question. You are not a perfect parent, and you will mess up a lot, especially because you are doing it alone. You are grieving too, and you may find that many of the things you do were not recommended to do in the book you read on children’s grief.
But WHATEVER. You can’t do parenting perfectly, and you can’t do grieving perfectly, and to ask someone to do them together perfectly is insane. What you CAN do is to tell your kids every day that you love them. What you CAN do is wrap your arms around them when they need it, and validate their sad feelings. What you CAN do is show up every day, even if it means that the house is a wreck and your son is late for baseball and your daughter only has carbs in her lunch because she is in charge of making it herself.
Because here’s the thing: your kids will be okay, because they have you, and you are showing them how to just keep going in this world. It’s not perfect. You’re messing up a lot and crying too much and never seeming to get things right.
I think so. And I know my dad thinks so too. And I bet if you ask my kids when they are grown, they’ll agree. Mom did the best she could. And that was enough for us.
**This column is merely my point of view and is for informational purposes only. I am not a therapist or medical professional, and thus my thoughts should not be a substitute for advice from these professionals. Please get immediate help if you feel like harming yourself. The National Suicide Prevention Hotline is 1-800-273-8255.
Image Credit: Stefanie Harrington Photography.