Parenting While Grieving: How to Be a Good Mom While Coping with Grief
The Beginning of Grief After an Unexpected Death
“Your dad might not make the night,” the ICU doctor said through the phone, almost helplessly.
I was at the movie theatre with my kids and my brother’s family watching Sing 2 when I got the call and could barely hear him as I snuck through the seats. The sympathy in his voice was a dead giveaway. The “I’m sorry’s,” and the “We’ve done everything we can do’s,” kept coming but I’d only ever heard those things in that slow telling voice in the movies. And here we were, at the movies.
I left my kids at the movies with my sister in law and went to the hospital with my brother.
On the way, we discussed how just 3 days ago, we were talking with our Dad about how we would rent a speed boat this summer and how we would celebrate Christmas after he got out with all the Chinese food. So this didn’t seem real. We thought he was doing better.
The next 17 hours were a blur of waiting, worrying, denial and confusion as I prepared to accept the fact that I would likely be made fatherless at 32 with 2 young children at home who need me in the in middle of a pandemic, during the holiday season, without any other family to help plan anything to clear out his apartment or execute the will or do any of the other things that you do when you’re in charge after someone dies. This isn’t supposed to happen until you’re older, except when it does. Even thinking these thoughts didn’t seem real. It seemed so unfair. It was unfair. Still is.
In this blog I am going to share with you some of the ways I waded through the initial waters of grief as a mom.
Disclaimer: I am not an expert. I am not a professional. I am simply sharing my experience in hopes that it may help you. If you are in distress or struggling with your mental health, I highly recommend seeking professional support through your doctor or other health professional.Know that there is always someone with the skills and tools who can help you.
What is Grief?
Grief is what we go through after a loss. Oftentimes we think of grief as something that comes after the death of a loved one, but we also can grieve the loss of a relationship, loss of a job or financial security, loss of good health or any other major life change which stems from loss.
When we grieve, it often involves deep feelings like sadness, despair, anger, regret, numbness and confusion. Grief can last from several weeks to years and arguably is something we never stop doing. For when we grieve we are processing the loss and this remembering and processing is really an act of love.
The End of his Life, The Beginning of my Grief
I was with my dad when he passed. It was just 1 day after he developed an infection from being intubated after his cardiac arrest. He went from a happy almost going home dad to someone I didn’t recognize within days, hours even.
I had to make the decision for them to stop pumping him with all the medication and oxygen that was keeping his heart beating. He was heavily sedated and we were assured he was extremely comfortable. Not that it felt like it mattered.
I wanted them to wake him up so I could say goodbye. I wanted to know that he knew what was going on. I wanted so many things to get closure and I didn’t get them. Some people say those in comas can hear you, but my dad was deaf, so that hope was gone.
I felt despair. I felt raw. I felt confused.
Because he tested positive for COVID, the rules were strict. As I brushed his face with my fingers and whispered my “I love you’s” behind full PPE I couldn’t see him clearly through the fog of my face shield. I couldn’t feel the touch of his skin through my gloves. I was angry at all that COVID had stolen. I was angry it happened so fast. I didn’t want it to be real but it was and I was living it.
When we left the hospital, it shocked me that the world was still turning and everyone else was still going about their business. That people could see me but they couldn’t see the gigantic hole that had just been ripped through me. My brother drove me home, and at home, was my family.
I don’t have a surefire way to get through grief, I am still grieving. Honestly, this loss was my first big one, and having your dad be the first death of a loved one is heavy. There were many moments that I was not okay, but over the years I have had to lean in to being not okay and allow myself to feel my feelings. That has been a big part of my process. Each of these steps required a certain amount of vulnerability: with my spouse, with my kids, with my friends, and with myself.
So without further adieu…
1. Relying On Others In My Support System Helped me to Parent While Grieving
“It takes a village” they say. I believe the village was always more about supporting parents than it was about the kids. When parents feel supported, they are better equipped to support their children, and as the main touchpoint in our children’s lives, we need to be okay.
When someone dies, or we experience great loss- we are not okay. This is why during a time of grieving it is especially important to allow others to stand in the gap for us and support us whichever way works best.
Now for me this included but was not limited to: my husband taking time off work and taking on more practical responsibilities around our home, friends setting up a meal train to make sure we had dinner made for several days in a row, friends and family who provided child care either for me to get things done or to be at home in grief, allowing others to clean for me, talking with mentors about what I was going through, allowing others to help with funeral preparations and other practical needs we had, and more.
I know that I am lucky to have these humans in my life and am fully aware that not everyone has a support system like this. I could have focused on what we didn’t have: grandparents to help out or any of my dad’s family to be there whatsoever, etc. But the ones who DID offer, we said yes to. It is important to let the people in who WANT to help.
You are not inconveniencing people by asking for or accepting help. It is in our human nature to lend a hand and to rely on others.
Part of the beauty of the human experience is that we were made for connection. When we are at our darkest hour, there are people around us who will offer help and accepting this help is what brings us closer together. To allow others into our darkness is to create a bond with them and if death brings out any beauty, it is that.
I may not have been my children’s main caregiver as much during my initial grief. I may not have cooked a lot of home cooked meals. I may not have kept up with the logistical responsibilities of running my house as well. I may have let go of control of things that I normally have control of. But I was still a good mom. Relying on others didn’t change that.
I was able to get things completed I wouldn’t have without support. I was able to be more present and practice patience with my kids because I was less strung out than I would have been without support. I was able to have time to grieve and be in my feelings because I allowed others to take over the other things.
Relying on my support system while grieving was one of the best things I did.
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2. Lowering My Standards and Expectations on EVERYTHING Helped me Grieve
As a mom of 2 kids who are 5 and 7, I have been around long enough to know that there is no such thing as perfect motherhood. I started lowering the bar a long time ago and subsequently: my state of mind, mom guilt meter, and family harmony have only seen the benefits of that.
When things get tough, the bar gets lower. It doesn’t mean that it has to stay there, it means that for a season things will be different and your load as mom and a griever, will be made a little bit lighter.
After my dad died, I became incapable of making decisions or having rational thought. Literally nothing else seemed to matter. Nothing seemed significant. My ability to cook, clean, emotionally connect with my family, remember when I last showered or if I ate that day, or even get through an hour without crying was extremely limited. Now, I could have made myself feel guilty about this, but for what? To add more stress to an already impossible situation? No.
Here are some practical ways I lowered the bar:
- Screen time limits went out the door. More TV was watched by my children than I care to admit and for that I will apologise to no one.
- Fed is best became the mantra. Toast. Cereal. McDonalds. Leftovers. Apples slices all day. Whatever was easiest and accessible and fed the humans was what got fed.
- Sanitary was enough. As long as no one is getting sick or hurt from the state of my house, I left it. Toys, paperwork, piles of stuff from my dad’s apartment, laundry, all of it was left unless it posed a risk.
- Let others know to count us out. This looks different for everyone, for you it might be cancelling extracurriculars or playdates, for us, it meant no online learning (we were in the middle of an COVID shutdown)
By lowering my expectations it meant there was less disappointment. If you don’t expect a clean house, home cooked meals, to play and be present with your kids or to go to every engagement you have agreed to- then you can’t be disappointed that you “failed”. Keeping perspective and knowing these changes were temporary really helped my mindset. Your kids are not going to grow up having been deprived from having seasons of relaxed routine and expectations. Honestly, my kids told me it was the “BEST MONTH EVER”.
Not so much for me, but hey, knowing they were okay helped me be a little more okay.
3. Communicating With My Husband and Kids Helped me to Parent While Grieving
Disclaimer: when you are grieving you don’t always know what you need, and if that is the case that is okay.
The people in our lives who want to be there to support and love us don’t always know how to.
Often, they don’t know what to say or what to do. They know it’s a tender situation and don’t want to do or say the wrong things. At first I didn’t know what I needed, but as I sat and thought and realised what I needed: I asked for it and it was so helpful to those around me who desperately wanted to help. In turn, it was helpful to me.
I was advocating for myself, which may seem selfish – but as a mom it is the most selfless thing we can do. When we have the space to grieve, to feel, to let go, and to take care of our own needs we are more equipped to mother well. Communicating your needs is an act of love not only to yourself but to your children as well.
Things I communicated:
- I need help with the dishes
- I need help scanning pictures for the slide show
- I need you to ask me hard questions
- I need to be alone
- I need to have a hot bath
- I need to laugh about something
- I need to listen to sad music
I needed lots of things and once I could vocalise them, my partner and friends could help.
Lastly, I communicated to my children what had happened to my dad and what I was experiencing- in an age appropriate way. This will look different for every family. Not only is it important to discuss the reality of death with our kids, but it is important to them to see how it affects us. I allowed my children to see my grief at times. I asked them to talk about memories with Grandpa. I read them books about love and loss and grief. I told them they could ask questions.
Optional: Communicate Your Feelings
As an extrovert and verbal processor I am not one to be lost for words – except for when I lost my dad.
I remember sitting in our hot tub several times in the evenings directly after his passing. The hot tub is where my husband and I go to connect, without kids or phones or distractions. It is where we really get to talk. Those first few nights I just stared off into the distance, not at anything in particular but just lost in a sea of thought and worries and fear and deep despair. I wanted someone to crack me open and let it out but I didn’t even know where to start.
Not everyone is a verbal processor like I am and not everyone is ready to talk about their hard and deep feelings.
Personally, I needed people who were willing to be with me in it. To listen. To ask questions. To lament with me. I needed it so badly.
My husband is an amazing support to me but not a man of many words. I needed him to let me know it was okay to share the dark scary confusing things I was thinking and feeling. Once I told him I needed this, I was able to let so much out and it was very healing and cathartic for me. You can do this with any trusted person. I recommend sharing your feelings when you are ready, it is cathartic.
4. Allowing Myself to Feel Helped Me to Grieve
This is a tough one. I want to start by saying I know and acknowledge that every single person grieves differently. I can attest to this by sharing this viral Tiktok that I made with a heavy dose of dark humour.
Let’s go with this: crying is normal, joking is normal, anger is normal, confusion is normal, wanting to be alone is normal, wanting to be with others is normal.
Grief is all the love we didn’t get to express and death is complicated so however you deal is okay.
But there is something to be said for allowing yourself to feel- whichever feelings those are. One thing I have learned on my trips around the sun is that attaching guilt, shame or meaning to our emotions doesn’t help anyone. It doesn’t fix anything. It doesn’t heal anything. It doesn’t do anyone justice. It just makes it worse.
When my dad died I felt regret that I didn’t see him more- that is valid. I felt anger towards people in his life that made his life difficult- that is valid. I felt jealous that other people get to have their dads for longer- that is valid. I felt grateful that I got to have a relationship with him- that is valid. I felt sad that he had to die- and that is valid too.
There is no sense thinking things like “it could be worse” or “at least _____ didn’t happen” or “at least you got __________”. Toxic positivity and comparative suffering have no place in grief. All of our journeys are unique, and each relationship is unique too. So allow yourself to sit with the feelings you have and let it be. There will be a time to work through them or to look for the source or to wade your way through the waters, but for now just sit in it. Your feelings say nothing about you or your character. There is no right or wrong way to grieve. Don’t overthink it, get comfortable being uncomfortable- because grief is not linear and we are not perfect.
I told my kids that “if mommy is sad it’s because my dad died, not because of anything you did”. You see, I didn’t want to suppress my feelings and have them come out in bursts at them. I didn’t do it perfectly I am sure, but I hope that by allowing my feelings and talking about them, I let my kids know that I am a human who feels too. I hope it let them know they didn’t do anything to upset me.
I hope that they see that when life gets complicated for them and they have hard feelings that they don’t need to squish them away or feel ashamed but that it is a normal part of humaning. I hope that it helped them to build trust with me.
Parenting While Grieving is Hard, But You Can Do Hard Things
Losing someone or something that alters our life as we know it can rock us to our absolute core. It is hard and complicated and scary and overwhelming. Parenting while grieving is even harder because we still have responsibilities. Navigating our feelings and balancing our need to grieve and our need to be there for our kids can seem impossible but it isn’t.
Putting some of these tips in place, is not going to make your grief go away. It won’t make the world make sense again. It won’t bring them back. It won’t take away all of the feelings or speed up the process. Doing these things will hopefully give you, as a parent, space to expect the unexpected, emotion wise & task wise.
By relying on others, lowering our expectations, communicating and allowing ourselves to feel our feelings it allows us to create opportunities to allow our grief to take place. It creates a safe place for us to let go and grieve in whatever way works best for us. By making these changes we are doing ourselves and our children a favour and truly showing love. And how honouring to the person we have lost to know that we can carry on loving after they have left us. What a beautiful way to be human.
So what now?
Listen to these podcasts on Grief
Listen to these podcasts:
- Jen Hatmaker interviews Sal and Im from @goodmourningpodcast and they break down a lot of barriers and talk about how Grief is complicated and there is no right or wrong way. It helped me feel so seen.
- Brene Brown interviews David Kessler who has researched and written a book on the 6th stage of grief, finding meaning. It was validating and brought me hope.
Leave a comment and let me know how you were able to cope with grief and what helped you.
Thank you for being here.