Parenting Through Grief

An essay by Kim Hamer. 

(This is part 1 of a two-part series on Talking to Children About Death.)

“Daddy’s not coming home, sweetheart. He’s going to die. The doctors say in the next few days.”

I could not believe these words, these heavy and disjointed words, were coming out of my mouth and into the air, intended for the ears of …

My child.

I had to repeat these words again as my other two children came home from school, both of them fully unaware of what I was about to tell them. For that matter, fully unaware what the death of their father meant for them, for me, and our now shrinking family.

That was our introduction to grief and mourning. We are still learning.

My husband, Art, died from cancer in April 2009. He was first diagnosed with a Stage IV Lymphoma in August 2008. In true made-for-TV style, he beat it in nine months, running a 5K only four months after the doctor told him that the side effects from one of the chemo drugs probably destroyed his athletic lung capacity.

Then two months shy of the two-year Yay-He’s-Still-Alive date, it struck him again. Stage IV again. It moved swiftly and deftly. He died four months after the second diagnosis, two months after his 44th birthday. My kids were 11, 9 and 6.

It’s been almost exactly 1,095 days since then.

There are still conversations about Daddy, what he’s missing, anger at his dying and still yes, many, many tears. For me, as my grief subsides and stops clouding my every moment (which has taken two years, by the way — this whole one year thing is BULL!!), I have been able to reflect on the first part of this journey as a widow and an only parent.

Obviously, helping my kids work through their grief over the loss of their dad has been super important to me… But it‘s also been a very surprising process. Here are the three things I learned about parenting children through grief.

1. Heal thyself first. To be really honest, after Art died, it was every man/kid for himself. I was incapable, 23 hours of the day, in dealing with my kids. I was, however fully capable of gathering the guilt my so-called negligence reaped. (That is only now dissipating.)

I quickly learned that I couldn’t help my kids until I helped myself first. In the early days, it came down to simply getting out of bed every day. To do this, I resorted to setting up my day as a set of commands. Command 1: Put your feet on the floor. Command 2: Stand up and go use the bathroom. Command 3: Wake up the kids.

That is how I functioned for the first few months. So after the death of their dad, my kids lost their mother — the woman and parent they had always known me as. But as it turns out, this was a good thing. According to child grief experts, a typical child reaction is to wait patiently until the surviving parent rights their new world. Kids often sense it is not “safe” to grieve. When the parent is stable again, this is when a child will fall apart. The parent is then strong enough to meet their child’s needs.

And here’s the other reason it was important for me to heal myself first: I was modeling grieving for them. We don’t do grief well in this country. There are so few conversations or rituals on how to grieve past the first few months. When I let myself grieve I was showing my kids how it’s done. Healing myself first was key to their ability to heal themselves.

2. Do nothing with their pain. So there I was, months later, getting my sea legs in the midst of loss, and on queue, my kids started falling apart. First my youngest son became suicidal…at age 7. Then my oldest son fell apart, grades crashing, feeling isolated and lost. What I wanted to do was fix it. Put on my protective cape and take MOMMY ACTION. Do something to stop their discomfort, do anything to stop their discomfort. I called the professionals, set up meetings with therapists, tried having “talks” with my boys. Then it dawned on me:  like me, they wanted a witness — someone to say “Your pain is real and deep,” someone to stand by them, to just say “I hear you.” And nothing more. Someone to remind them they are not alone.

I still struggle with this because there is something so deeply disquieting about not being able to “fix” your child’s problems. I am powerless to protect them from this loss. I cannot bring Art back to life. And that little fact tears me apart at times. I sit with them, I cry with them. I hold them. I do not let distractions flow from my lips like “What is your favorite memory of Daddy?” or “Daddy would be proud of you!” Because those words show my discomfort with their pain, my need to distance us from it. Instead, I inhale, embrace my powerlessness and give them the space to grieve. I do nothing with their pain but let it flow out of them. And I remember … the intense grief they are experiencing will pass, just like it passes for me.

3. Grieving does not end. When Art died, I grieved not only for his death but for all that he would miss, the budding breasts of our daughter, first girlfriends and boyfriends, graduations, the athletic feats, weddings and births. I grieved for all these life milestones he would miss. When Art died, the kids had no idea of those milestones. They grieve his loss, deeply again whenever these life events occur. One month before my daughter turned 10, she came into my room sobbing her little body apart. “Daddy is going miss when I turn ten, my double-digit birthday.” It had just occurred to her right then what he was missing. She graduates from middle school this year. Her grief does not end.

For them, and for me, grieving does not stop. It comes in waves, farther apart but it ambushes at unexpected moments. Grief is the wound that never heals for us. It scabs, it stops gushing, but it never heals.

So if you and your kids are grieving, let it come. It brings you to your knees and when you stand up again, because you will, you and your children will love more fiercely than ever before. I promise you.

—  Kim Hamer’s experience in dealing with her husband’s sudden death from cancer her gave her unique insight into living through personal crisis. Friends and family wanted to offer support but didn’t always know how to be helpful and effective. She realized there was a strong need for a resource for those friends and loved ones who wanted to help but weren’’t sure how. That’s how “Exactly What They Need” was born. The blog offers ideas, tips and inspiration for those who want to help others who are dealing with death, divorce, cancer or illness.

The Mother Company aims to support parents and their children, providing thought-provoking web content and products based in social and emotional learning for children ages 3-6. Check out the first episode of our children’s series, “Ruby’s Studio: The Feeling Show,” along with our beautiful children’s booksmusichandmade dolls, and more.  We want to be a truly helpful parenting tool… For you!


Posted in: Parental Wisdom, Loss