Parenting Through Grief:
Maintaining Parent-Status during Personal Pain and Loss
By Jane Rubietta
After losing her first baby through an ectopic pregnancy, Christa wasn’t sure she would ever be able to bear children. But three daughters soon filled her quiver with vibrancy and laughter and the bustling, exhausting package of parenting. Upon learning she was pregnant yet again, she embraced the possibility of another child with joy.
But this baby, too, went to heaven sooner than any parent dreams. When the heartbeat stopped after three months, Christa and her husband, Brian, headed to the hospital for a DNC, then returned home quickly to pick up their parent-reins again. Christa showered and her tears flowed. But the reality of her three growing girls and their all-encompassing needs marginalized her grief. She swallowed her tears, got dressed, pasted on a smile, and went to the kitchen. “Who wants pancakes?”
Parents in Pain
Grief is not limited to the death of a loved one. Marsha had to figure out how to grieve the loss of her own childhood while she simultaneously raised her children. Addie’s father’s diagnosis of Alzheimer’s Disease propelled her into two-pronged panic: arranging his care and tending her household—and her own pain as he increasingly lost contact with her mentally and emotionally.
Carol and James’s son took a walk on the wild side at age 14, baffling the family and threatening to displace his two young siblings with his dysfunction. The family hid their sorrow and misplaced shame under pretense.
As parents, pain and loss are inevitable. What to do with them while continuing to function in a family is not so obvious. Clamping down on the emotions so we can continue life as usual is one option. Many of us try putting on a happy face, like Christa, who said, “My daughters are alive. I need to focus on them.”
However, doctors suggest that, “If you don’t weep, your body will.” Our pain, suppressed, will show up in our bodies, our voices, our souls. Christa began having nightmares and woke up in a sweat, convinced that she was dying. Or that her husband, gone frequently on business trips, would not return. The fear that one of her daughters would die rarely left her. She became short of breath, and her chest physically hurt.
Parenting doesn’t stop—but if we as parents don’t deal with our grief, our families will be damaged. Choosing to feel our pain, to grieve the layers of loss, is a better route.
Feeling But Not Fine
Gutting it out and getting through it are no shortcuts for grief. As slaves in Egypt, the Israelites did not stiffen the upper lip. Instead, the scriptures tell us they cried out to God. “…The Israelites groaned in their slavery and cried out, and their cry for help because of their slavery went up to God” (Ex. 2:23). “Oh God, we hate this! This is horrible! We are tired. We are beaten. We are desperate. And now they want bricks without straw. Do something!”
I especially love God’s response. He didn’t say, “If you can say that politely, I will answer you,” as I am tempted with my own children and their often ill-expressed needs.
Instead, “God heard their groaning and…was concerned about them” (v.24-25). The original word for heard means “to listen with an intent to respond.” I’m convinced that God waits for us to cry out before sending pain relief. If the Israelites had been fine in slavery, they sure wouldn’t have listened to Moses, the very man God was grooming to rescue them.
Christa at first managed her grief by focusing intently on her girls. She clamped down on their behavior, became more protective and more strident in her efforts to help them grow up safely and circumspectly. When her dreams and her body began to tell on her, she started setting aside a few minutes of private every day—and truly they were brief minutes—where she could listen to her heart, then take her feelings to God.
Marsha enlisted the help of a Christian counselor and began attending a support group, and journaled when she could fit it in. Her grief over her own childhood issues eased as she felt the pain, surrounded herself with people who understood, and kept taking the trauma and tears to God.
Addie’s church trained laypeople to help parishioners in hard places, and she called the church for practical help. Not only did volunteers listen to her grief, they helped her sort through options for her father’s care, giving her a shoulder to lean on. Once a week they helped out with the children for a couple of hours so that she could run errands or spend some time alone.
Carol and James’s grief over their prodigal nearly turned them against each other, until they agreed to feel the pain together, to keep talking, and to find other parents of prodigals for mutual support.
Interpreting Our Grief
Grief can be messy, overflowing the neat containers we have provided as receptacles for the tears. Marsha waded through tears and anger en route to health, and her gradeschool-aged children needed to understand. “Kids, I want you to know that I’m working through some hard things, but that I am not upset with you. I may cry, but it’s not because of anything you have done.”
Brian, Christa’s husband, did not understand her reaction to the miscarriage. “He felt the pain briefly and then moved on. I struggled with guilt: what’s wrong with me, if he is okay?” A chasm grew between them. When her physical symptoms began, she knew she needed to talk to him about her feelings, not expecting him to rescue her or even to validate her grief. She also refused to continue answering people’s well-meaning question, “How are you?” with the lie, “I’m fine.” Instead, she might say, “I’m really missing my baby, and trying to figure out how to be a good parent to our children without shutting down my heart.”
Carol’s grief over her wandering son appeared when she tried to over-manage every minute of her other children’s lives. This alienated and confused them as well. During some time alone, she realized that, “I was trying to hyper-control my children because I felt so out of control with Mark. I finally said to them, ‘I feel out of control over other parts of our life, and it’s showing up in how I am with you. Please forgive me.’ That was a turning point in my relationship with all of my children, and with James as well.”
Sandwiched between Alzheimer’s devastation and the needs of her young children, Addie knew something had to go. “And it couldn’t be my mind,” she said, laughing. “I took a leave of absence from women’s ministry at church, and then told the kids, ‘The house won’t be as neat as usual. We will need to pitch in more to get meals and laundry done. Who wants to be in charge of setting the table and clearing it? Who will match socks and fold towels?’” She also released her high expectations of herself, learning to tolerate more imperfection in her surroundings.
Modeling Good Grief
Dredging a river deepens the flow for water, and in the same way, grief, well-observed, deepens our capacity to love others and to offer safe places for them. Finding a way through their own pain gave these parents opportunities to talk with their children, and others, about how to grieve. Listening to their own hearts and shedding their own tears sensitized them to the grief their children might be feeling.
Addie’s kids were upset about their grandfather, but didn’t know how to talk about it. She invited them into the grief process by her own modeling. Doing dishes one night with her 7-year-old, she said, “I really miss the dad I used to know. What do you miss about Grandpa?” This opened up a time of remembering and telling stories, with a few tears, and changed the family feeling.
Carol and James asked their children, individually, how they felt about the difficult times with their brother, beginning with, “I have felt very sad about Mark. When do you feel sad?” Or scared, or worried.
Picking Up the Parent Reins
In times of grief, we tighten the perimeters of our lives, cutting out some optional involvements to free up emotional and physical energy for loved ones – including ourselves.
Eventually, Carol and James’s children opened up. “We learned that our intense focus on Mark and his latest escapade had eclipsed the other children’s importance. They felt neglected. We down-scaled some optional activities, and tried to return to a semblance of normal: the school play, the piano recital, turning in the envelope for school pictures.”
Cultivating safe places and support for grief, parents can find healing, even though the problems may not disappear. When the routine includes good soul- and self-care, we can bracket our grief and function more normally as parents. Sure, life is still cloudy with scattered showers, but the sun breaks through more and more. Though grief will last through the night, morning always comes.