What You Probably Won’t Learn in a Parenting Class
A mom whose husband has recently died has a tough challenge. She has to reinvent her life right at the moment that she wonders if life is worth living. Often it is her children that keep her going. But it’s also true that each of her children have their own tragically unique grief experience to content with. So how does a dad or a mom guide a child through the stages of bereavement?
You Don’t Always Have to Understand In Order to Help
Grief is confusing, depressing, and a burden that defies explanation. At age 12, my older brother died suddenly and I remember how it felt to be living out a dark nightmare 24/7. I felt sadly surprised that the world around me was going on as usual. I would think, “How dare the birds sing! Don’t they know?”
Eighth grade in a large middle school can be challenging enough with no trauma in the mix, but that year to me felt like I had suddenly moved to northern Alaska where no one knew me and I didn’t feel the warmth of the sun for several months.
Understandably, most of my friends pulled away for the simple reason that I was no fun anymore. But my best friend stood by me and I think he was the single most important factor in getting me through that year of grief. He really didn’t understand what I was going through and I rather suspect that his Christian parents strongly encouraged him to stick close to me.
Even if he had gone through something similar, his understanding of me would have been limited. Why? Because each person’s grief experience is as unique as their fingerprints. The grief of one individual is as unique as a heavy, black snowflake that chills to the bone and seems to never melt. Nevertheless, it was his steadiness, his presence, his true friendship that gave me a rope to hold onto while treading water at the edge of a very treacherous waterfall.
So what does all this have to do with parenting a child through the stages of bereavement? It actually means that there are a lot of things that don’t need to do in order to successfully guide your teen through the stages of grief:
- You don’t need to constantly force your child to talk about it with you.
- You don’t need to completely understand your child.
- You don’t need to do everything “right.”
- You don’t have to be a perfect parent.
One of the most important things for you to do is provide a reasonably stable, caring environment in which you are regularly available to your child and demonstrate to him or her that you are rebuilding your life, inch by inch, even though at times you are overwhelmed with the sadness of your own loss. Can’t afford to buy those expensive shoes for your child? Forget about it. That’s not the essential part of parenting a child through the stages of grief. Your daughter needs to know that how they feel matters to you, even while you have a measure of humility about understanding his or her own unique experience of loss and mourning. Your son needs to know two things from watching you as you cope and flounder: (1) life is doable even when it’s not happy; and (2) life will get better.
Being Available During the Stages of Bereavement
You need to be available for brief, regular intervals of time. You are not cheating your child if you are working full time. But you have to make a point to connect nearly every day. Being available involves your son or daughter being able to call you at work, having daily contact with you when you are tuned in (this doesn’t always have to be a long time), and modeling that life will go one and does go on even though if often feels awful.
You don’t have to be his or her best friend, but you do need to be reasonably steady, cut him or her some slack with their mood swings (and yours!), and keep planning simple things to look forward to. You also need to be clear in your own mind that you all are still a family, albeit a grieving one. At the risk of stating the obvious: you don’t have the luxury of letting your life fall apart.
In a Nutshell: Concentrate on a Few Simple, Important Things
Figuring out how to guide your child through the tunnel of grief is hard enough while you are going through your own huge personal changes. So don’t add unnecessary materialistic, standards of parenting that really don’t matter in the long run. Pull in aunts, uncles, teachers, coaches, and your more solid friends to help with some of the experiences that you cannot give to your child at the moment. Be regularly available to your teen without hovering and try to plan something simple, cheap, and fun every week or two. Having something to look forward to provides stepping stones as you cross the river of grief together.