There are benefits to having young children to care for when you’re bereaved. They provide an incentive to get up every morning and face the day. Children provide a sense of purpose and even joy during the hardest of times. You can’t help but smile at their humorous antics and share in the delight they take in the smallest things.
The downside is that it may be harder to do your own grieving with the many responsibilities of parenting and helping your children process their own grief.
So what do you do to take care of yourself as well as your children when you have lost a spouse and they have lost a parent? As someone who was widowed with youngsters, here are some of the things that I learned along the way.
Don’t Put Your Grief On Hold
Children will mirror your behavior, so if you are stuffing your feelings and putting on a happy face for them all the time, they will not learn to grieve themselves. You are their role model. There will be times when you need to drop everything and be there to listen and comfort, but the more work you do to work through your own grieving process—to give yourself time to cry, to feel your feelings of loss—the sooner you and your children will be able to move on. It also normalizes grief when your kids see you grieving—it helps them see that there is nothing wrong with their own feelings of loss.
Create a Sacred Space in Your Home for Alone Time
Create a space where you can go and do your grief work. Tell your child that this is your special place to have a little quiet time and to not interrupt, unless it’s an emergency. Use this time to meditate, write in a journal, do some yoga, read inspirational literature. Do this for at least one-half hour a day in the a.m. and optimally, in the p.m. as well.
If your children are too young to be left alone in the house for a little while, create a sacred space for each of you in the same room to have some quiet time together. Give your child books, crayons and paper, and toys that aren’t noisy. It you do this every day, it will become a ritual that your child may even look forward to.
Put the Oxygen Mask on Yourself First
Depending on the ages of your kids, and if you are working, you or may not have a lot of free time during the day, but if you greet your school age children at the door having taken care of yourself versus stressed out and anxious, everyone will feel better. So, attending a grief support group, having friends and other widowed people to talk to, keeping yourself in shape by exercising and eating healthy, will benefit not only you, but your children. And as hard as it is, try to get out of the house regularly. If your kids see that you’re afraid to go out and leave them with a trusted babysitter, or if they’re older, you hover and constantly check in on them when they’re out—they will pick up the vibe that life is a scary, unpredictable place where no one is safe, and get stuck and anxious themselves. Your courage to move ahead with your life while journeying through your grief will inspire them to do the same.
Don’t Be Afraid to Ask for Help
Friends and relatives often don’t know what to do or say to someone who has suffered the loss of a loved one and would welcome being asked to do a specific task, so don’t be afraid to ask. It may be to take a child to the park or the movies to give yourself some alone time—or to cook some meals to give yourself a break from the kitchen. It’s also a good thing for your children to have other loving adults in their lives that they can rely on—and if possible, to have the companionship and perspective of an adult of the same gender as the deceased parent.
No Big Decisions
Besides such things as cleaning out closets and creating a new bedtime ritual if your spouse was the one who read the bedtime stories, don’t make any major changes in the first year in which you were widowed.
It may be tempting to sell your house and move closer to relatives, to completely redecorate, erasing sad memories, to change jobs, or go back to school full-time. Any of these things may be what you ultimately will decide is best for you and your children, but big changes take a lot of energy and focus, so wait until you have had time to process your grief—your first priority—before making any impulsive decisions that you might later regret.
Take It One Day at a Time
Be gentle with yourself. Ups and downs and setbacks are a normal part of grieving. In your desire to make life better for your kids, resist the urge to try and do too much and over schedule everyone. It is important to maintain the regularity of routines and structure in your children’s lives—and your own life—but with flexibility to cancel plans at the last minute if you’re not feeling up to doing anything but lounging around watching a movie on TV. As much as you want to, you can’t make life perfect for your children and you shouldn’t try to. Even without such an enormous loss, life is full of curveballs and uncontrollable occurrences, and the most important message you can give children and give yourself is that out of despair comes hope and joy, and that you are doing your best to show up one day at a time, which will turn into weeks and months and years as you begin to heal from your grief.