When I sat down this morning to read the news my feed included an advice column from syndicated writer Carolyn Hax with the title “Should children be shielded from their parents’ grief?”. A “Grieving Mommy” was seeking guidance on how to address her sadness with her 4-year old following the loss of her father.
Her question resonated with me deeply. While my own father has been gone over two years, I still encounter moments of sadness and see the concern for me from my children. As a mother, I am always questioning my choices and myself, never more so than when considering how my emotions and expressions may affect my children in the long-term.
It was not surprising for me to receive criticism from some family over my handling of my father’s illness and passing as it relates to sharing with my children. Just like there is no right way to parenting, there is no right way of parenting through this. I promise you that whichever path you follow, someone will question you but no more than you question yourself.
When I learned that my father had cancer, I was already at one of the lowest points in my life. Not 6 months prior had we been relocated from the home, career, schools, friends and community that I loved so dearly to another country half-way around the world. I’d lost that home and job, my children were suffering in their new school, and without a shared language or culture I felt that I had no friends and was intimated to conduct daily activities, such as grocery shopping.
When my father told me he wasn’t going to get better, I didn’t have the mental strength to pretend that I’d be okay, that we’d be okay, that anything was ever going to be okay again. Not once did I doubt sharing my fears and vulnerabilities with my children who were 6 and 8 at the time. Perhaps this was selfish of me. But I didn’t have the inner strength to pretend.
Pretending is exactly what I would have been doing. To what end? To protect them from understanding the complexities of life? To shield them from the loss that they’d be facing?
We expect that our children are honest and forthcoming with their emotions with us; I trust them enough to be able to accept the same from me. So, when my son said “Granddad will be alright. He’ll beat this.” I simply shook my head and told him no, he wouldn’t and to think otherwise was lying to yourself.
And when my daughter was in tears, afraid of dying I told her ‘You know who’s dying? Granddad. Let’s call him and ask if he’s afraid.” Which we did. And he told her that he wasn’t afraid, that he was so tired of being so sick, and that for him, dying was like the best sleep he could ever imagine. While she grieves him, my daughter hasn’t been afraid of dying since.
Which is perhaps one of the gifts I cherish most from my father’s passing. A gift we were only able to receive because we were honest about our fears and our sadness.
To that grieving Mommy I would say that the best gift she can ever give her child is her real self. Not just the happy self, but the woman who’s sad and tired and lost. The woman who was someone’s child and desperately wants to hold tightly to that feeling of having her father’s love. And to embrace the opportunity to not only be sad about his passing with her child, but to celebrate the sadness that only comes through deep affection and appreciation.