This post was written by Kelly McConnell as part of my ‘Dear mom’ series. I have a passion for moms supporting moms. Therefore, I want my blog to be a place where other moms’ voices are heard and all motherhood experiences are shared. I am blessed to have amazing women who have agreed to guest post here to share parts of their mothering journey with you.
Dear Grieving Parent: You Are Not Alone
I am willing to bet a case of wine that each of you reading this is grieving a loss, in some form. It may be the death of a loved one. You may be going through a divorce or the ending of a long-term relationship.
For some, you may be experiencing unpleasant shifts in your relationships that leave you feeling abandoned, unsupported, or unable to trust.
You may have lost your job. Your current employment or career path may be in a constant state of disruption, change or uncertainty. Or, you may be mourning certain freedoms that have been erased due to public health restrictions.
Some of you might be grieving the loss of things that previously brought joy and meaning to your life and contributed greatly to your well-being. Social gatherings, travel, live music, team sports.
Perhaps you are feeling robbed of opportunities not just for yourself but for your child as well. Recreational opportunities and skills training, quality of education. Social development and connections with peers and extended family. A predictable routine and sense of normalcy.
As a result of a recent hardship, past trauma, or general chaos and change in your life, you may be experiencing a crisis of identity. A wavering and undefined sense of self.
Some of you may be experiencing nearly everything on this list. And it absolutely sucks.
How do we even begin to reconcile the layers of grief and continue moving forward beneath this great burden?
How does a parent provide their child with the optimal safety, love, guidance, and opportunities to grow and thrive while also trying to care for themselves?
You are not alone in your current state of grief, burnout, and constant wondering.
Let me share with you a little bit of my own grief journey and what I have learned from it.
A Chapter of My Grief Backstory
In 2013, on the eve of our shared 30th birthday (we were born the same day in the same hospital in London, Ontario but officially met in high school), my husband Luke died suddenly of a cardiac arrhythmia. Up until that point he had been a healthy young man with no known cardiac issues.
Our son was only ten days old.
The first year of my son’s life, and some of the days that have passed in the following years, were a blur.
I felt crazed by the loss of my best friend and life partner, by the lack of sleep, the postpartum hormonal changes, and the complete upheaval of my life and my sense of self. On the other hand, I was fortunate to be surrounded by what I lovingly describe as the most phenomenal village one could ever hope for.
Uplifted by our Community
Our family, friends, neighbours, and even complete strangers stepped up in those initial days and months after Luke’s death. They provided me and my son with abundant support. Meals, childcare, monetary donations, hand-me-downs, legal guidance, kind words and open arms, companionship during the long days and even longer nights, and so much more than I can even express in words.
Over time, the frequency of those gestures naturally dwindled. That is to be expected, as others move forward with their lives and the loss is no longer at the forefront of their minds. Even if it remained glaringly present for me.
Navigating Relationships & Grief
Megan Devine’s book It’s OK That You’re Not OK is a must-read for any grieving person or individual supporting a bereaved person. In her book, she states,
“Grief changes your friendships. For many, many people, it ends them. Your loss intersects with often hidden or especially painful heartbreak in the people around you. Your pain bumps up against their pain. We may not call it that directly. But that’s often what’s happening when people behave poorly or fail to understand the immensity of your loss. And even when your friends want to support you, we don’t often have the skills no matter how skilled we truly are—to witness and withstand another’s pain. Feeling helpless in the face of loss makes people do strange things. No matter what the deeper reasons are, the loss of friends you thought would stand by you through thick and thin is an added heartbreak. The injustice of these second losses makes grief itself that much more difficult.”
In this tumultuous time, this holds even deeper meaning as we struggle to cope with our own instances of grief and loss. Feeling like we cannot give any more of ourselves to those who may need it most right now.
Everything seems so impossibly hard. And just when we think it cannot get any worse, we enter a new wave or lockdown. We must somehow keep our heads above water – keep adulting, keep parenting, keep existing.
Strategies to Support Yourself and Your Child through Grief
Embrace your ‘chosen family’
The composition of my immediate family is certainly not what I expected it to be at this point in my life. However, I am still able to surround myself and my child with people whose values align with ours.
I strive to ensure that we will be supported by a village that will love us and lift us up despite our losses and disadvantages. And that we will have trustworthy champions and sounding boards who will also provide us with unconditional support. (Including the occasional childcare to give this tired mama a break!)
No matter how you may be related, if you come across someone who enriches your lives—friends, teammates, colleagues, teachers, coaches, etc.—foster those new and sometimes unexpected connections. And draw those people into your chosen family!
Consider seeking [grief] counselling
I resisted talking to a therapist after my husband died, even though I myself had worked in the mental health field as a counselor and knew of the benefits of talk therapy.
There remains a stigma attached to seeing a mental health professional. However, I am seeking to normalize it within my own social circles. Now, I talk openly about seeing my therapist. I connected with her a couple years back and she specializes in grief and loss, particularly in child and adolescent grief.
When my friends are experiencing life challenges, I will directly ask if they would also consider seeing a therapist.
The fees to access a counsellor can be a barrier, but consider utilizing your EAP (Employee Assistance Program) if you have one. If you have healthcare benefits, look into what may be covered.
There are also many community resources listed in the ‘Help Yourself Through Hard Times’ booklet, some of which offer sliding scale fees for their services.
Additionally, if your family doctor is affiliated with a Family Health Team, you may already have free access to a mental health professional.
Reaffirm that your child’s losses are NOT their fault
It is crucial to reiterate this, especially for children under the age of seven. They still maintain the normative developmental concept of magical thinking. Young children believe that their thoughts can control what happens in the world.
They may feel responsible for a death or any other hardship that has befallen their family. It is imperative that you guide them in reaching accurate conclusions and understand that these things are beyond their control.
Accept what is beyond your control
The sorrow that I have experienced in relation to some of my losses, particularly Luke’s death, feels particularly tremendous because it is unresolvable.
Some days I still must remind myself to accept this, and to instead find a sense of security in the decision-making that is still within my control.
Nurture the resilience and emotional intelligence that comes from loss
You may notice that your child exhibits an ability to bounce back from difficult situations, or a capacity for courage, insight and self-awareness that is beyond that of their peers.
I frequently find myself in awe of observations my son makes about the world around him. Or of instances of compassion that he displays in relation to people around him (even complete strangers). I make a point to highlight these exceptional moments for him.
Honour and validate experiences
There is no right or wrong way to grieve, as a child or an adult. Children may have a hard time communicating their needs or understanding their emotional states. (Heck, I am 37 and still cannot fully grasp the complexity of my own spectrum of emotions). This will shift with every new developmental stage.
That is where it remains key as a parent to be present, ask questions, really listen, and affirm.
We can also assist them in finding outlets and coping strategies that allow them to make meaning from their experiences, and even strengthen connections to the person or thing that they have lost.
Developing new traditions and rituals have provided my child and I with opportunities to become more connected to Luke as well as to each other.
I am a widowed mother of a 7-year-old child and a 15-year-old dog (who my son lovingly refers to as his sister). We have been building the bonds of our little family unit for the past seven years and have thrived on regular nature connection as one of our greatest coping mechanisms. Getting outside, being active and exploring our natural surroundings are our favourite activities to do together as a family.
Outside of my work as a project coordinator in the health care field, I am also a photographer, avid reader, and the facilitator of a Young Widows Support Group in London, Ontario.
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