Elizabeth Baron, LMHC is a NY State Licensed Mental Health Counselor and psychotherapist with a Master’s degree in Counseling Psychology from Columbia University’s Teachers College. Learn more about her here and check her out on Instagram.
The death of a loved one is the greatest stressor that we face. It can generate sadness, anger, and anxiety, and interfere with our concentration, sleep and appetite. Combine that with parenting, arguably the hardest and most stressful job in the world, and you get a grieving process that is particularly difficult. In my therapy practice, many clients in the midst of grief have described moments when they’d rather be crying alone than warming up a bottle for their baby, feeding their toddler for what seems like the 17th time that day, or doing any of the other daily responsibilities required of them. Maybe you’ve been there too. Doesn’t it feel harder to soothe your child during a meltdown when you, yourself, are in distress? Maybe it’s when you finally get around to brushing your teeth at 2 PM that you wonder: How do I care for myself while ensuring my children are cared for too? Is it okay for me to not be okay around my children? How do I explain this to them without scaring–or scarring–them?
While many parents try to hide their grief from their little ones, I believe we bolster children’s emotional intelligence and resilience by letting them see us deal with life’s challenges, including periods of loss and mourning. You might be worried about doing or saying the wrong thing when it comes to processing death with your children. But, just like every other aspect of parenting, conversations with our children are usually not just a single, finite moment in time. There are countless opportunities to try again, repair a mistake, or change your approach. If, for example, you share a story with your toddler about your grandmother who recently passed away and you felt it confused or scared them, you can start over– maybe right away, or maybe tomorrow, or next week. This isn’t so different from other daunting conversations, such as when we try to set boundaries with our mother-in-law, or educate our children about sex and intimacy. We can practice and, after some time, the once-scary topic doesn’t feel so taboo. When we include our children in our grieving process, we are treating grief and loss like all other milestones of parenting– a learning experience for both the parent and child.
Grief during the holidays
Holidays are often filled with excitement, gifts, and a whole lot of togetherness. They also are filled with high expectations, constant attempts for a family photo, traveling from one event to another, and often stress and exhaustion. So if you are also grieving a loss at the same time, it is normal to feel extra overwhelmed.
If you expect that the holiday season will be emotionally challenging for you, do what you can to prepare. Even just telling yourself that the holidays might be tougher than usual helps to manage your expectations and lower stress levels. Also, be transparent with others, including your partner, about what you need. Maybe that’s extra childcare for a few hours, someone else hosting the family this year, or bowing out of an event entirely. It might also be healing to honor the loved one you’ve lost. This could be framing a picture of your loved one near your Christmas tree or cooking a special recipe. It could be lighting a candle or playing your loved one’s favorite song. If your children notice you are emotional, be honest with them. That might sound like, “Mommy’s feeling sad because she misses Nana.” This normalizes a healthy emotional response and models for them that it is okay for them to let their feelings out too.
How to support others who are grieving
If you are supporting a loved one through a loss, here are some ideas of how to help. Instead of asking them what you can do, be proactive and show up. Send them a text and say, “I can come over and take care of the kids from 2-4 pm. Does that work for you?” Even doing small, everyday tasks for them can make a big difference. Wash the baby bottles, do the laundry, prepare a meal, or drop off the supermarket staples or diapers on their doorstep. Ask them to share their favorite memory of the person they lost. Give that second hug they didn’t ask for. Finding the right words can be tough, but usually a simple “I’m so sorry” offers the right amount of support and sympathy.
Things to remember during the grieving process
There is no one-size-fits-all approach for grieving, for parenting, or for doing both at the same time. But there are a few things I urge you to remember:
- You can be a caregiver and also cared for.
- You can make new memories and keep the old.
- During tough times, show your children that you are human.
Try to look at life through their lens, finding joy in the simple things. Make time and space for you, and please, ask for help.