As parents there are some conversations we can dread having with our kids as they grow up – from the constant “why?” questions to the science homework questions to which we don’t know the answer to, of course, The Talk.
One of the conversations we probably don’t ever think of having is the one where we explain to our child that one of their parents has died. But when my husband died following a heart attack, this is exactly what I had to do with my son.
My husband of 16 years had become unwell in the early hours of a Monday morning in 2013 and was taken to hospital by ambulance. When my son and I arrived we were told he’d gone into cardiac arrest, and despite their best efforts he never regained consciousness. He died five days later.
Nothing prepares you for that moment. I couldn’t believe what was happening to us, yet I had to try and explain things to my eight-year-old son as honestly as possible in a way he would understand. I told him that his daddy’s heart had stopped working and that the doctors had tried everything they could to make it start again, but the damage to his body was too bad and he had died. He was, of course, devastated, but he seemed to understand what I was telling him.
“From couple to now single, with sole responsibility for everything: not just the parenting, but the finance, cooking, cleaning, even putting the bins out.. suddenly it was all down to me”
In that instant, everything in our lives changed. I was a widow at 39. From couple to now single, with sole responsibility for everything: not just the parenting, but the finance, cooking, cleaning, even putting the bins out.. suddenly it was all down to me. This was never the plan.
For the days, weeks and months afterwards I was desperately trying to negotiate my way through this nightmare. There was so much to organise and I was still in shock – with sleep often elusive, I was surviving on adrenaline and caffeine. I was lucky to have some wonderful friends and family to support me, but as time went on I soon realised who was in it for the long haul, and whose help ended at “if there’s anything you need just ask” in a sympathy card.
What makes it even harder when you’re a parent is that not only are you trying to process your own grief, you have to try and help your child to manage their grief too. I have learned that children grieve very differently to us adults – while for us it can feel like we’re in the sea with waves of grief constantly crashing around us, for children it’s often like jumping in and out of puddles. They can be inconsolable one minute and running off to play the next; incredibly angry to laughing and joking in an instant. It’s unpredictable and can be difficult to understand.
Then, as they process what they’re going through, come the questions – often asked at the most inopportune moments. On the way to school or settling down to sleep, that’s when they’ll hit you with a deep question about death.
“Anniversaries and birthdays are always particularly tough, but we get through them and carry on.”
I’ve learned it’s best to try and answer honestly, yet appropriately for their age. As tempting as it may be to try and dodge the difficult questions or change the subject, kids will fill the gaps in their understanding themselves – and that can be even worse than the truth.
In the beginning it feels overwhelming and like it will never get better – but it does get easier with time. The pain is still there, but it is less raw, less all-consuming. However, for children they can experience their grief with a new level of understanding as they get older and reach a new stage of maturity. Times of transition can bring grief to the forefront again too. Like moving class or school or other times of change when the absence of the missing parent is felt so very deeply. However, children who have experienced this type of loss can often develop a level of emotional intelligence beyond their years. Recognising when others are struggling.
We are over six years on now, with my son now a teenager. Parenting alone has been a challenge – no-one to share the decision making and discipline with, but on the flip side no-one to argue about the parenting with either! The buck stops with me. This can be terrifying and liberating in equal measure. My son is growing into a wonderfully caring and funny young man and I’m immensely sad that his dad isn’t here to see it. Anniversaries and birthdays are always particularly tough, but we get through them and carry on.
One positive is we decided to use what had happened to us to try and help other families in a similar situation. Grief can be incredibly isolating, and there can be great comfort in meeting those with a shared experience. So three years after my husband died, the charity Bereaved Children Support York was born. We run a monthly drop-in session for bereaved children and families, a group for parents as well as offering one-to-one therapeutic support for those children who need it. We continue to grow and have met some truly wonderful people along the way.
“We might think we’re protecting our children by not explaining what has happened, but avoiding confusion and teaching our kids they can trust the adults around them to tell the truth matters”
Although it is not something we like to talk about, a child is bereaved of a parent every 22 minutes in the UK. It happens more than you might think, and however unthinkable it is, it’s worth knowing what to do if you find yourself in a similar situation.
Be honest with your child. We might think we’re protecting our children by not explaining what has happened, but avoiding confusion and teaching our kids they can trust the adults around them to tell the truth matters. My son would often ask questions about why the doctors couldn’t make his dad better and I would explain as best I could. Sometimes I would have to say “I don’t know”, but that was okay too.
Use the right words. It can feel harsh using words like ‘dead’ and ‘died’, but terms like ‘passed away’ or ‘gone to sleep’ can cause fear and anxiety to children.
Accept, and offer, practical help. If you are the bereaved person and people around offer to help out in practical ways, let them. I can’t tell you the relief of someone texting to ask if I needed anything from the shop or my son taking to an after school activity – I wouldn’t ask, but I was happy to say yes. It might sound like nothing, but if you’re looking for ways to support a bereaved person offer specific help like preparing meals to go in the freezer, offer to take their child to school, cut the grass or do the shopping. It is much easier to accept help like that instead of a general offer.
“Yes this is not the life we planned, but it can still be a good life.”
Be kind to yourself. There are no ‘rules’ when it comes to grief, but here’s one certainty: it’s exhausting! Rest when you can, eat as healthily as you can and try and get out in the fresh air and do some exercise when you feel up to it.
It can also be helpful to meet others in a similar situation, both for the children and the adults. Local charities like Bereaved Children Support York can help as can national charities like Widowed and Young. There are also great organisations like Child Bereavement UK and Winston’s Wish who have excellent online resources as well as a great helpline you can ring for advice.
Grief and loss are painful, but I have found it important to try and look to the future with positivity. Yes this is not the life we planned, but it can still be a good life. My son will be forever changed by what has happened to him, but hopefully we can help him – and others – find ways to navigate through their grief so that it does not negatively impact their future.
Life is precious. Families who have experienced loss, like ours, know that more than most.
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