Advice, Stories

Grieving when you have small children

It’s been years since we’ve been home for the Christmas holiday.  Years since we braved the airports and years since we’ve had the money to fly our family home for the holidays.


In fact, only my oldest who is now nine has ever been home for the holidays.


My daughter was really too young to remember us taking her home for Christmas.  Yet the kids frequently ask when we are going to go back to my in-laws for Christmas.  You see, they remember the month early Christmas that my mother-in-law created for them five years ago.


My oldest child has such fond memories of that Christmas, yet for me it was a instead a time of grief and loss.


Five years ago today, while my oldest two were decorating Christmas trees in their pajamas and celebrating the season, my husband and I were holding my dad’s hand as he passed away.

Two kids in Christmas Pajamas


I planned on having many more good long years with my dad.  Many more Christmas’s to be able to make the trip home.  Many more opportunities for my kids to share in the holiday season with their grandparents, great-grandparents, cousins, aunts and uncles.


In that moment, five years ago, I crossed the threshold that so many others before me have crossed.  I knew the sadness and loss of a parent.  I felt in it my core, absorbed its weight and then had to continue to live my life in spite of my loss. Just as countless other daughters and sons before me.


And in the same moments that I was grieving my dad, I was also caring for my three children under all the age of five.  Ages 4 years, 2 years and 6 months to be exact.


Curious children that wanted to know how Papa died, what we did with his body, why I was crying, was I sad, and when were we going to see him again.


Loving children who were experiencing pieces of my own grief as well as feeling their own big emotions inside their tiny bodies.  Small children who still needed to be fed, nursed, bathed, cared for and read to.


In the months that followed, my four year old drew me a picture of her Papa and explained she drew it so that I could remember him.  The picture she drew of him was him lying in his grave.  I gave her a hug and smiled with tears running down my face as I tried not to burst into a sobbing mess on the floor.


The sadness doesn’t go away.  You don’t get over losing your parent.  Time has taken the edge off my grief (particularly the anger) but it’s always there below the surface, a new piece of myself that I have learned to live with rather than fight against.

Child's drawing


I never quite realized all the friends that had already lost a parent when I lost my dad.


They were such a comfort to me.  They reached out as a fellow comrade who knew the weight of this loss.  Their words providing a guiding hand.


Half a decade later, here is my advice for grieving with small children.


Be gentle with yourself.  Let go of what doesn’t help you heal.  Take long-hot showers. Walk slowly.  Do less.  Use nice words in your internal dialogue.  Breathe intentionally.  Take calming breaths.


Spend more cuddle time with your kids.  My youngest was six months old.  She was too little to deny me the extra hugs and snuggles I needed.  Take a nap when the kids do. Cuddle together under the covers and read story after story to your kids.  Ask for hugs and kisses.


Say yes to all offers of help.  One of my friends came over and offered to do my laundry.  It was so touching to me and also so helpful.  She didn’t come to visit with me.  I didn’t need to greet her and smile.  I left my laundry on my front porch and she returned to the porch later with it cleaned and folded.


Find time for yourself.   I took my supervisors advice to take more time away from work while at the same time saying yes to daycare’s offer to let the kids stay additional days.  Later that month, as I transitioned from working full-time days to part-time evening, I took advantage of the two hours of free childcare that the YMCA provided its members; knowing that my kids were having fun and well cared for while I took much needed time to myself.

I would run on the treadmill with tears streaming down my face or I would take a long, long hot shower in the locker room or I would listen to soothing music as I stretched my body and sometimes, I simply sat in silence in the lobby corner pretending to read magazine after magazine.


Have a plan for the rough days.  Keep kid-friendly, quick meals readily available. Take a bath while the kids watch a movie.  Go to the park (or McDonalds) and sip something warm while the kids play.  My older kids loved playing in the master bath shower stall so I would sometimes let them play in there until the water ran cold.


Answer their questions.  While their questions were difficult at times, it felt good to talk about my grief and what happened to Papa.  It was okay to admit my sadness and at the same time talking about my happy memories of their Papa.  It was okay to talk about his illness.  Even five years later, the kids will still have questions and want to talk about their Papa and my sadness.  Yes, my children will out of the blue ask me if I’m sad that my dad is dead.  Kids don’t pull punches.  But in a way, I found it comforting.

And they know that even now, I will (almost) certainly cry when I am sharing my memories with them and answering questions.  I encourage them to keep asking questions, to keep being curious, to keep him alive in our memories.


Share the healing experience.  As age appropriate, let the kids be part of the healing.  My kids help make my dad’s favorite cake to celebrate his birthday.  Last summer, we also had to opportunity to visit the cemetery.  While it was a difficult day for us adults, the kids were happy to clean the gravestone and dance about.  It’s okay.  Sharing in the experience doesn’t mean feeling the same emotions as you.


Children cleaning gravestone


Get more sleep, limit your alcohol consumption, lean on your spouse, let go of guilt and get some fresh air.  This goes back to being gentle with yourself.  Take a nap, go to bed when the kids do.  Don’t overindulge – a hangover is always bad with small kids but mixed with grief it’s a recipe for disaster (I’m speaking from experience).  Lean on your spouse, hug often, cry together and heal together.  Let go of guilt.  It was simply too much stress for my body to grieve and to produce milk for my six-month old.  While I would have loved to continue to nurse, I had to let go of that guilt.  I also had to let go of the guilt I felt thinking that I so many more years to share with my dad.

Finally, take a stroll, fresh air can do wonders for everyone.


Let the grief be what it is.  Be patient.  Grief doesn’t follow a path.  My path is not yours.  My path was not my husband’s.  Your grief will change over time.  Don’t worry about the timeline and don’t expect the grief to disappear.

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