Beth just knew what would come next when she answered the door to two police officers, her two-year-old daughter clinging to her leg still asking for cookies while her 13-year-old son was away at soccer practice. Her husband had been severely depressed, and while they seemed to have their good days together and he'd been in treatment, life very obviously represented a world of pain to him. Her husband, Beth was convinced, had committed suicide.
"He's dead, isn't he?", she asked. They could only answer affirmatively.
In the months that followed, Beth went through a whirlwind of emotions. From relief — he was no longer suffering — to intense grief, feelings or numbness, and anger. She couldn't afford to be carried away by the tide of grief, though. She had two kids to look after. Her young teen son became withdrawn and difficult to talk to, while her toddler daughter seemed her happy self but would occasionally say things that just broke her. "Daddy!," she said once, when she spotted a man on a motor cycle, like the one her father had, with a helmet on.
- You'll be grieving for your partner yourself.
- You'll be supporting your child(ren) through the grief process and helping them get used to a new way of life.
- Your parenting style is likely to change, both as a result of your grief and because you're likely to be taking on roles that your partner previously fulfilled.
- You'll also be wondering whether to seek support from relatives, friends, and the community — or how much.
Familiar routines can offer comfort
So much will have changed. It can be comforting for children of any age, as well as adults, to maintain familiar routines. Have those Sunday pancakes. Continue sending your child to daycare. Keep on going to the park to play. Don't pull your child out of extracurricular activities.
Talking about your loss
Talking about death and loss with children is incredibly difficult, but so important. Do explain what happened in age-appropriate ways, and do not avoid mentioning your partner, your child(ren)'s other parent, in conversation as you grieve. Some things that will probably come up include:
- Very young children who do not yet have a full understanding of what death means should learn about this topic now. They should understand that death is permanent as well as why people die. Young children may be afraid, following the loss of someone close to them, that other people around them, or they themselves, could be next.
- It is not uncommon for children, and even adults, to feel guilty after someone dies, especially if they were angry with the person shortly before they passed away or they found a part of themselves hoping the person would die so their suffering could end. Talk about this and try to alleviate the guilt.
- Offer opportunities to talk, but don't push them on children (especially teens) who don't currently want to talk to you about their grief a whole lot. In this case, try to make sure they have other people they can talk to.
- Some children also feel incredibly angry after a loved-one dies. This can be a normal and healthy part of grief, but if the anger is expressed in ways that scare you or are inappropriate (such as hurting younger siblings), talk to your child's doctor.
- It's OK and healthy for your children to realize that you are grieving yourself. It's OK to cry. It's OK to admit that you have trouble holding it all together because you miss your partner.
Be aware that grief isn't a finite process, and it can be triggered anew as you are confronted with anniversaries, holidays, or other things that strongly remind you of your partner.
Finding ways to connect with a deceased parent
Finding ways to connect with the deceased parent can both help children process their grief and allow them to make sense of their own place in the world going forward. Drawing, letter-writing, making a memorial in the home, and other creative outlets can help with this. Sharing favorite stories about your partner can help, too, as can looking at photos or videos of your partner together. Visiting your partner's grave and the places they liked best can also be part of the grieving process.
Don't be afraid to ask for help or to accept it
New widows with minor children may, in addition to struggling with grief, suddenly find themselves with additional responsibilities including now being responsible for all aspects of parenting and running a household and perhaps having to work (more) to make up for lost income. It's a lot, for anyone. "It takes a village" never holds more true than in this context.
If the important people in your life offer to cook for you, spend time with your children, carry out house repairs, or anything else that you'd actually really benefit from, don't be afraid to take them up on their offers if you want to. If they don't, feel free to reach out and ask for help yourself.
Grandparents, aunts and uncles, and friends spending time with your kids can offer your kids a temporary respite or give them the opportunity to process their loss with someone else. Grieving children often need more attention, and because you're grieving yourself, too, enlisting the help of others can be incredibly beneficial.
Take care of yourself, too
Caring for your children may be helping you keep it together, but don't forget that your own needs are important, too. By taking steps to look after your own mental and physical health, you'll better be able to support your children through this stage. Do what you need to, if you can, whether that's going for long walks alone or talking to a grief counselor once a week.
Approach your children's primary care physician
You don't have to do it all by yourself. A professional grief counselor can play an important role in helping your children during this difficult time, and many kids are going to be more comfortable discussing some of their feelings with someone else. Beth's son, for instance, felt angry and abandoned after he lost his dad, but didn't feel he could discuss these aspects of his grief with his mom until much later. Grief counselors are familiar with the full range of emotions people can experience after a bereavement and can do two very important things — listen, and provide healthy coping techniques.
If you don't know where to start, your child's primary care physician is always a good choice; they'll be able to refer you to appropriate services.