By: Nina Malanay
Being a parent demands that we give it everything we have, every single day. It is an enduring act of selflessness. Even when your life is running smoothly, giving so much of yourself while balancing family, work and relationships can already be difficult. But when life takes an unexpected turn and we find ourselves facing a major loss, being constantly present and positive for our children requires a seemingly unattainable level of strength and courage.
Grieving is an unyielding circumstance; it demands much from us – mind, heart, and body. Grief is like having a hollow, gaping hole in your heart. It’s like being lost at sea, not knowing where you are, or where you are headed. It’s like having a part of you die, over and over again. Parenting, on the other hand, is selfless and sacrificing. It is while parenting that you must be most alive, most mindful, most connected. How do we submit to the self-focus grief requires while performing the most selfless job a person can do? How do we give through the emptiness? How do we love through the pain? Here are 9 ways to remain strong and steadfast for our kids as we go through times of bereavement.
1. Help yourself first.
Remember how every time you board a plane, and the flight attendants give the safety demo, they also remind you to secure your own mask first before you assist another person? It’s because it’s natural instinct for many parents to protect our kids rather than ourselves, especially in moments of trauma, stress and grief.
As parents, we are so used to putting our kids’ needs ahead of our own. What we often fail to understand, though, is that taking care of our needs does not necessarily mean we are putting our children second; it’s actually a requisite in being able to provide them with the most safe and loving environment possible. Find the support you need from family members and close friends. Do not be afraid to ask for what you need and accept offers of help. Your emotional health matters.
2. Let your child see you grieve.
Many well-meaning friends and loved ones often tell a grieving parent to “be strong for the children”. And most parents mistakenly interpret being strong as hiding their grief from their kids. But what most parents do not know is that children actually need to see them grieve, especially when the children are grieving themselves. They need to see how adults process those same intense and confusing emotions they are feeling and learn healthy coping skills. When parents hide their grief, it’s almost like telling kids that it’s not okay to feel what they are themselves feeling.
The job of grieving parents is not to be strong for their children; their job is to show their kids that the expression of grief is natural, healthy and healing. Their job is to model positive, healthy ways of dealing with difficult times, including the death of significant people.
3. Find reasons to go on.
Sometimes, just the thought that someone is counting on you today (and each and every day) is enough to keep you moving forward. Knowing that life goes on for you and your kids – the kids still need to be fed, bathed and cared for; bedtime stories still need to be read; the house needs to be somehow cleaned; groceries need to be replenished – can be just what you need to motivate you to get out of bed. After the initial period of mourning and running on auto-pilot, it helps to slowly get back on your routines. Even if your only goal for the moment is to get through the day, having to be responsible for someone can help keep you from getting stuck in a negative frame of mind.
4. Try to maintain routines.
After the first few days of mourning, try to slowly ease back into your old routines. Having a structure each day can help you and your children feel somewhat in control. You do not need to follow a strict schedule, but just knowing what to expect for the day can bring a calming effect to you as you go through an otherwise chaotic and grim period.
5. Build a support network for yourself and your kids.
Even if you are used to being self-sufficient and take pride in being independent, grief can be an overwhelming and emotionally-draining period. Now is the time to lean on the people who care about you. Rather than isolate yourself, draw your friends and loved ones close and take the helping hand they are offering to you. Very often and especially during the first few months, family members and friends are more than willing to help but may not know how, so just tell them what you need – whether it’s watching over the kids while you take a few hours to grieve alone, help with tasks and chores around the house, or just having someone to hang out with.
Establish support systems for your children too, so you are not the only one helping your children cope with their grief. Aside from tapping your network of family and friends, you can also talk to your child’s teacher or guidance counselor at school. Music or art therapy, sports or counseling sessions can also provide opportunities for your child to express their intense emotions in a positive manner. It may even be a good idea to do engage in art activities or music lessons together.
6. Invest in your own needs.
Grief can trigger an overwhelming avalanche of emotions that can affect our ability to parent positively and maintain a sense of connectedness with our children. The stress of a major loss can quickly deplete your energy and emotional reserves. When we are stressed or sad, we have less patience and warmth for our kids, not to mention the effects of grief on our physical health.
It is important, therefore, to take care of yourself as you grieve. When you feel healthy physically, you will be more able to cope emotionally. Get enough sleep, eat right and exercise. Try to pursue your hobbies and do the activities that bring you joy. Going out with friends might be the last thing you want to do, but try to spend time with friends to reconnect and recharge. Taking care of yourself and your needs not only uplifts your emotional well-being, it will also help you be a better parent.
7. Anticipate grief triggers.
They say grief comes in waves – just when you think you are coping and doing well, a wave hits you, catches you off guard and overpowers you yet again. The holidays, anniversaries, birthdays – even the little, day-to-day things can trigger memories and feelings of grief. A grief trigger is anything that brings up memories related to a loss that involuntarily evokes feelings of sadness and yearning. Such experiences, though natural, can be troubling and devastating because they tend to open up the floodgates for a wide range of strong, intense feelings.
Try to anticipate events that can trigger intense grief and plan simple ways to get through them.
Plan to do something positive so that you add more good memories to the occasion even though they aren’t there to celebrate with you. In time, the triggers that brought you grief can fill you with a sense of warmth and comfort as you remember your loved one with fondness.
8. Don’t be too hard on yourself.
You do not have to be perfect. Nobody is expecting you to have it all together, all the time. It’s okay to breakdown once in a while. It’s okay to feel like you’re falling apart. Sometimes, being there for your kids is the biggest, most important thing you can do at the moment and that’s okay.
9. Be open to creating and experiencing a new normal.
Grief often seems overpowering and unbearable that it sometimes feels like your life will never return to normal. But there will always come a point in your grieving when you can find a way through your sorrow and once again become an active part of day to day living.
While routines are important during the initial stages of mourning, be open to finding new ways of doing things and embarking on new adventures. It can sometimes feel like you are betraying your deceased loved one when you try to move on without him or her – doing things you used to do together, and now doing it all without him. And while such feelings are normal, they should not hold you back from experiencing life as you should. You and your children can incorporate old traditions with new experiences as you move forward together. Live your life to honor the life of your deceased loved one — full of life, vigor and zest. Remember that though the person you love is gone, you are alive and must continue to live as if you are truly alive.
Life goes on – even when it feels like we can’t. Sometimes we breakdown, yet sometimes we surprise ourselves with our innate strength and will to cope. Because when you are a parent, giving up is not an option. And so we soldier on, facing the world head on, moment by moment, one day at a time. And at the end of the day, when we are alone with our thoughts and our pain, and we glance upon our sleeping child, looking peaceful and contented, we are reminded that, yes, joy can still be present, even in the darkest of times.
Nina Malanay is a mother to two rambunctious, affectionate boys, aged 7 and 4. Her husband-slash-best friend died in a tragic bombing incident in 2013. As she tries to navigate through life with her boys as a solo parent, she hopes to rediscover herself beyond the many hats she wears – mother, teacher, writer, baking enthusiast, student of life – and move boldly into her future.