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About Project 3: Having the Energy to Help Your Child

By Cheryl Downey, M. Div.
Chaplain, Allina Hospice and Palliative Care, St. Paul, MN

Having the energy to help your grieving child is an important matter for a grieving parent. A leading children's grief expert, Allan Wolfelt, suggests that in a grieving family "children often suffer more from the loss of parental support than from the death experience itself."

There are several factors that contribute to diminished energy in a grieving parent. The grief process itself will bring periods of "low energy" brought on by common grief symptoms: inability to sleep, exhaustion, fatigue, perhaps depression. A sense of timelessness, may compromise energy normally used to concentrate, focus, plan, schedule or complete tasks. "Timelessness" became more real to me after my father died suddenly and unexpectedly from a massive heart attack. I remember that pulling together ideas for the memorial service seemed like working with "molasses in January". Ironically, it did not occur to me to pack dressier clothes for the out-of-town visitation and memorial service. I was not able to organize, or think ahead. I remember feeling like I was floating, as I walked through the normal daily tasks of raising my four-year-old daughter, attending my marriage, managing household and lawn tasks, and working part-time.

In addition to the low energy brought on by the natural grieving process, there are stresses in the grieving parent/child relationship itself which may take extra energy. A stressful exchange my occur when the child's need to "make it real" touches the parent's raw pain. Answering a child's pointed questioning may trigger a flood of grief emotions in the parent. For instance, repeated inquiries "Will daddy be at my birthday party? may generate impatience in a surviving parent. 

A parent's grief may compromise a child's need for parenting in other ways. When as a parent you may need to be simple, clear and directional in your communication or discipline, you may find yourself forgetful, saying one thing and meaning another. Plans to "do something special" with your grieving child may fall prey to your fatigue. Each of you may experience hypersensitivity to feelings of rejection. For example, a relatively minor "no" from the parent to the child may suddenly mean "You don't love me"; or an oppositional remark from the child may suddenly touch a parent's deepest insecurities and fear.

As a grieving parent you may not feel free to experience your grief. You may struggle with upholding an image of "the good parent" which does not leave room for encountering together the pain of the death or the depth of the life changes. Perhaps your idea of the "the good parent" is one who never cries in front of your child, much less with your child.

At one point in the months following my father's death, I was experiencing a "day of tears". As I felt the force of them coming, I removed myself to the privacy of my bedroom. I did not want to frighten my child or "lose control" in front of her. However, as I was pouring out my tears and pain in my pillow, my daughter knocked on the door. I did not answer at first because I could not, but also because I did not think I wanted her with me. She was persistent and single minded about getting into see me, so I finally gave in. She asked me "Are you feeling sad? Why are you feeling sad? Are you thinking about Grandpa?" I answered her "yes", and she clambered up on the big bed and said, "I feel sad, too. I feel like crying, too. We can cry together, can't we?" My heart stretched open to a space I had not felt before - the place where my love for my child could exist side by side with the powerful pain of my grief . . . with neither diminished or neglected.

Perhaps your image of "the good parent or family" is one in which you move into the future hopeful that you will not miss a beat - that it is possible and even desirable that the death of your loved one will not "get you down" for your child's sake. Unfortunately, this sets up a grieving parent for unrealistic expectations, an ongoing sense of failure, and guilt. Death and grief by their essential nature are change-producing and life-creating. Your life as a person and your relationship with your child will be different directly because of the loss you share.

Belief #1: We can go on as before

New reality:

Everything and everyone has changed. Parents have way less energy.


Try arranging additional child care, day care, grandparents visits or adopt a teen helper.

Belief #2: Kids should be seen and not heard.

New reality:

It is helpful for children of all ages to be given opportunities to express their feelings and thoughts.


Offer opportunities for children to speak and draw their grief. Offer it at times when you can truly share your feelings with them.

Belief #3: It is important for an adult to maintain privacy, and it is important to protect children from the possible emotional trauma of seeing their parents grief.

New reality

It is a drain on your energy to continue pushing those who are closest to you away from your pain. Isolation is painful.


Cry together. Punch pillows together. Go outside and yell together. Nap together.

Belief #4: If I accept someone's help, then I am disempowering myself.

New reality:

Children will demand attention from you. The world will continue at its pace, with or without you.


Accept help. Look for help. If someone calls on the phone, ask to meet for lunch to talk. Seek out a professional grief counselor. Find a support group.

Belief #5: It is a sign of weakness to let grief have its way.

New reality:

If you do not acknowledge the pain of loss and the need to journey through it for healing, grief will become a monster. Grief has you, you don't have it. Your world is being reborn.


Let your grief process have its own time. In so doing, you teach your children the most valuable grief lesson of all: Honor your grief and respect yourself on the journey.

Do project 3.



Allina Health Grief Resources