Mummy feels sad: parenting with honesty and grace through a season of loss
So often parenting is a vertical job. We worry about keeping our kids safe, respectful and engaged. We relate to them through our differences: we are more experienced and developed, we have more wisdom and power. It is our job to guide and protect them. But when we are taken to our knees with grief, it’s a time to gently let go of the urge to protect our children from this pain. Instead, try to pull your attention toward connecting through your shared experience and humanity. Whether you are two, seven, or thirty-six, fear is fear, anger is anger and pain is pain. For a brief moment, we have the opportunity to let go of our rank and relate to our children as equals.
As grieving parents, we have two important choices. Firstly, do we let or our own pain in, or do we try to avoid and escape it? And secondly, are we open and honest about our process with our children? When we choose to let grief in, we are leading with our vulnerability. We’re entering into a space where we may feel like children ourselves; we may feel hurt, confused, and even frightened. By having the courage to sit with these difficult feelings, we can teach our own children that we are learning too; we are hurt, confused, and scared as well. And if you, their infallible hero, can have and hold these feelings, they must not be a sign of weakness, or a thing we need to bury and never speak of. They must not be a thing we displace onto others, or a thing that will go away when we grow up. They must not be a measure of character. And the beautiful thing is, modeling emotional acceptance IS in fact protecting your child.
If you are wondering where to begin, here are some points to consider:
1. Make room for what you’re feeling.
Parents may need to clear two hurdles here. Firstly, we have a tendency to turn away from difficult thoughts and feelings because we know facing them may be scary and unpleasant. Secondly, we often have an urge to “be strong” for our children, which may lead to attempts to avoid any feeling we are less confidant about facing, or those that may bring our emotional process to the surface. The trouble is, consistent efforts to turn away from these feelings can train our minds that we are incapable of handling difficult thoughts and feelings, which can increase our perception of their power, decrease our confidence in our emotional capacity and resilience, and fuel anxiety. If we practice sitting with, or even welcoming the challenging feelings, we are teaching ourselves and our little ones that they are not to be feared. We are capable of weathering the storm.
2. Talk about it with your children, in a developmentally appropriate way.
When anger and sorrow rise, honor this to your best capacity. If you are with your child, talk to them about what you are experiencing. It can defuse any fear or confusion they may be experiencing. To a toddler you may say, “Mummy is feeling sad right now.” While to an older child you may say, for example, “Right now I’m feeling pretty sad that your mum and I don’t live together anymore. I feel a little better when I talk about it. It’s okay for you to feel sad too and you can always talk to me or your friends about it.”
3. Ask for help, accept help.
When help is offered, this is the time to say yes. We are modeling interdependence and community reliance for our children. If you find yourself resisting, ask your self, when your grown child is going through a difficult time, would you want them to be able to ask for help and accept it? Be specific with your support network so their efforts are actually helpful. If you don’t want company, ask for a meal to be dropped on the doorstep. If you want company, ask someone to meet for a coffee or come over.
Not all of us have the luxury of organic community. Difficult times may strike when we’ve just moved cities or countries, for instance. If this is the case, look into paid or co-operative childcare to give yourself some breathing room. Consider exploring communities of faith or secular philosophical groups as they are often wellsprings of support.
4. Have an outlet.
It’s so common to put our own needs at the end of the to-do list. Often this means they don’t come to fruition. If you keep a physical diary or to-do list, experiment with listing your self-care at the beginning of the day. Make some time for your outlet: writing, painting, dancing, yoga, running, chatting with friends… whatever it is you have turned to in the past to help you recharge through difficult times.
5. Honor what was lost.
Rituals can be very soothing when someone or something we love is gone. Try compiling a box of items that bring memories of the person or time in your life you’ve lost. This box can be stored away and brought out when you feel like spending time with it. It’s also a great way to involve children in your memories and your journey. You can talk about the items in the box and share your memories and thoughts.
6. Experiment with The Balance Trinity: self-care, planning, reflective practice.
When the days feel long and dark, think about a triangle. In one corner is self-care (hot baths, cups of tea, stretching, meeting friends, going for walks), in another is planning, and in the last is reflection. Planning should be gentle; just a flexible guide on how to structure your day. Reflection can be journaling, making art, spending time with a memory box, therapy or a support group, spiritual practice or engaging in mindfulness. Self-care should feel life a luxurious reprieve from the labour of grief, while reflective practice may feel intense and focused on your process. The point of the balance trinity is to facilitate a focused, yet gentle lifestyle that makes room for your grief but prevents it from taking over.
7. Re-frame the urge to protect your child from your loss.
Instead, model healthy ways of grieving. Show them what it looks like to sit with, honor and learn from the pain and complexity.