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
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
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.
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
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.
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.
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.