When one parent dies, the child left behind is almost not helpable at first.
How do I know a child whose parent dies is almost not helpable? Because it happened to me when I was a child. I lived it. It sounds ominous to be labeled not helpable, but I promise it’s not. I know what can help.
I was the classic stubborn, self-conscious teen who thought she could do it all herself. This seems contradictory to be self-conscious but still think you can do it all yourself, but it applied to me mostly when it came to my mom. I was 16 and I could do it all without her help. I was a big girl.
Boy, was I wrong.
I didn’t realize how much I needed her until she was gone, and then it was too late. Way too late.
I couldn’t take back all those times I screamed at her that I could do it myself. I couldn’t erase all those times I yelled at her because I could handle anything (because I was invincible and I knew it all).
After her death, I sat in tears in my room, diary in hand, writing bad poetry (and some good) trying to endure my sentence of having to learn to do life on my own without her. I never felt more alone in my life.
And it hurt. It hurt a lot.
No one can really help a child in this situation, but, fellow parents, I will tell you what not to do and what could maybe help.
Don’t assume kids will make good choices. They will make bad ones. Really bad ones like dropping out of dance after 15 years or not studying at all for tests. They might go to school and endure, but don’t expect thriving to happen. Don’t get too mad about it either. Simply wait, press them lightly, support them but don’t scold.
Your child may decide taking unsafe risks is important because doing so at least makes them feel something. (I did take unsafe risks and I did many things I don’t want to mention, and I hid it all.)
Don’t assume that what they say is true.
Don’t assume they are lying.
Don’t abandon them and go off and do your own thing because you are grieving, too. Of course, everyone is grieving. You are grieving; your spouse just died so grieving is normal. Just don’t leave your kid (of course take your own needed and deserved breaks, but don’t do it excessively as an escape because your kid will notice, I promise).
Don’t expect happiness.
Don’t expect obedience.
Don’t expect smiles.
Don’t leave them with family on holidays to go be with a new significant other. No. Matter. What. Take them with you on holidays. Just be with them.
Don’t make them feel unimportant.
Don’t criticize if grades start to fail. Be supportive and non-judgmental.
Don’t expect them to be the same as they were before their other parent died.
Don’t expect they will behave the same as they did before the other parent died. They aren’t the same person anymore.
Don’t expect them to fill in and do the tasks the parent who died used to do. Even if they are a teen. They should help of course, but don’t treat them as a substitute spouse for household tasks.
Don’t ignore them and assume all is OK because they don’t complain. They might be silent because they can’t talk about it.
Don’t let them get away with moping about and doing nothing forever.
Clear as mud? Maybe this will help.
What to do:
Keep old traditions alive and keep them going even if the child doesn’t seem interested. Trust me, they will notice even if they don’t frolic through the motions of the tradition with a smile on their face. Don’t let this lapse while they still live in your house. Wait for them to come around to enjoy the traditions again.
Try to connect with them even if they don’t seem interested. You don’t want them to feel abandoned and alone. That will only make everything worse.
Listen. Let them talk and listen even if you don’t like what they say. Just shut up and listen.
Offer to take them out to eat or to a movie and don’t stop offering even if they say no every stinking time.
Tell them you love them every day. Even if they don’t say it back, say it every day. Every day multiple times. Say it when you leave them even if it’s just for work, school, or the store, say it. They will have the fear that every time you leave, you might die too. Even as a teen I had this fear.
Offer hugs. Ask to snuggle.
Ask them to play a game or watch a movie.
Make their favorite foods.
Give them extra time with friends and bring friends along on activities even more than you used too.
Parents who lose your spouse, don’t forget you have to be both parents to that child now.
I know your stress and grief are over the top and too much for you to handle most moments, but remember your child’s brain is not fully developed. They are still children, even a teen is still a child and not fully mature yet, but your brain is fully mature.
Step up and be there for your child. Focus on your child.
Get help if you need it but just be sure to be there. Don’t shirk it. It’s all you now.
Your child is counting on you and needs you more than ever. Don’t give up your cape because your necessary superhero parent powers have just exploded exponentially.
I know I’m putting a lot on you as a parent, you lost a spouse, your world has been torn up, too, but for your child with an immature brain, his world has been rocked harder, sharper, more stabbing, more complete than it has for you.
What else you can do as the surviving parent:
Give your kids endless buckets overflowing with grace.
Ask your kids if they are OK. Ask it every day.
Ask them how their day went. If they don’t answer, ask them again. Even if they get mad, ask them again.
Even if the child blows up and stomps out of the room. Never stop asking. The child will notice you asked and even if they can’t answer, at least they know you asked.
Don’t assume silence and no blow-ups mean all is smooth sailing. Get into the nitty-gritty, expect ugly, ask them how they are even if they slam the door in your face and you are staring at the wood grain of the door when you ask it. Always remember it isn’t necessarily about you.
Don’t criticize their appearance, within reason of course. But, if they are struggling and you make comments about how they look in a negative way, that will shove them down further into their sadness. Tact is a necessity here, especially with tweens or teens.
Speaking of sadness, watch for signs of depression that go beyond normal grief. Many kids are good at hiding depression, I certainly was and in fact, I didn’t even know my feelings were signs of depression until I studied depression in college. It was sort of an aha moment for me as I read down the list of teenage depression symptoms and I nodded my head at each one; I had suffered from all of them.
Don’t just take their word for it when they say they are OK. Watch them. Observe them. Do they have more headaches? Signs of anxiety? Are they eating more? Eating less? Do they still care about doing things they used to care about or are they quitting everything? Are there any signs of substance abuse? Do they still talk with their friends? Do they still hang out with their friends?
Watch them like a hawk for signs of depression, don’t hover, but be ever-present and ever vigilant to catch your child before any sort of irreversible damage happens like stress-induced accidents or even suicide.
Believe they will be better someday. Believe things will improve. Tell them this all the time. Be the annoying repeater.
My mother died when I was 16. I don’t think a person ever fully recovers from losing a parent to death while still a child. As I type this, I know that statement will scare a lot of parents. It terrifies me to think of my own death and having my children face what I faced after my mom’s death. In fact, my own death is my number one fear as a mom.
There is hope. Kids can survive. They can survive to thrive.
I did. I’m still here, still bearing the scars of parent loss some 27 years later.
It shapes and molds me as a parent now, especially as I am reaching the age my mother was when she died. To be honest, I’m petrified to turn that age. It’s too painful. Too significant. Too real and haunting. I want to stay here on this earth and parent my children. I want to hold my grandchildren. I want to parent more; I’m just not done.
Why do I write all this? Not to make you feel guilty when you get annoyed at your children when they are fighting. Not to make you feel bad when all you want to do is run away from difficult kids after a full long stressful day of work. Not to make you feel shame when you cringe and yearn to go hide when you come home only to see your kids fighting, tears exploding out of them because of difficult homework.
Parenting is hard every day.
I tell you all this because somewhere in the back of your mind these thoughts will be there in case you need them. I pray you never fall into the hole of spouse death, but if you do become a widow, having read this, you will have a tiny glimmer of what your child might be going through.
For me, it’s all about helping the kids. They need to endure. They need to survive. They may not thrive for many years, but they need to go on. They need to continue and that is the only way they will get to the other side of healing and sunshine and the birth of their own babies. That is the only way they will thrive again someday.
They must simply survive to get to thrive again. And as their parent, that is what you need to do for your child if your spouse dies. Just be there, no matter what.