When a Partner or Spouse Dies
Living with Bereavement Alex James
Single Parenting Children
“I am trying so hard to keep things together; I try not to get upset in front of the children. At first I just kept busy but now I’m finding hard to get motivated. Sometimes I feel angry with her for leaving us, for leaving me with the kids. I can’t do it all alone. Then I get angry with myself”.
“I feel so totally alone, I cry at night when my kids are in bed. I can’t let them see me cry, I think they’d be scared if they knew how I feel. I’m worried too about money and how we’re going to manage. I sometimes wish I could just walk away. It’s so hard much harder than I ever thought it would be without him. I don’t want people to know I’m not doing as well as they think”.
Becoming a single parent through bereavement is incredibly hard, physically, mentally and emotionally. Many newly bereaved partners tell me they feel exhausted, that they hide their emotions fearing letting their children see their devastation and that they are anxious about coping, doing things the right way and appearing to be managing. The stifling of feelings and the constant anxiety drains their energy and adds to their sense of isolation. Sometimes the remaining parents feel they have to keep things to a certain standard, fulfil the role of the deceased parent and go beyond the needs of their bereaved child in order to compensate. They fear communicating their own grief because often they fear letting go, losing control of themselves and not being able to recover. The pressure to see their children through grief is their main priority. Sometimes overprotection of children and the belief that the children should not see the bereaved parent’s distress can be cause of breakdown of real communication within the family. Children are often more aware than we realise, and they too can hide their feelings in order to protect the remaining parent. This quickly becomes a vicious circle, the children trying to protect their parent, the parent trying to protect their children and thus no-one speaks.
My Dad seems to be ok; he doesn’t talk much about Mum. He sometimes cries but never in front of us. My aunties say we must all be strong. I never talk much about Mum because it just upsets everyone but I would like it if Dad and I could talk about her, even if we are sad”.
By allowing children to see our pain and our grief we reassure them that they too can express their feelings. They do not have to protect us from their scary grief and by observing that sadness in others is acceptable, they too can share their own feelings. It is important for families to communicate and for the deceased parent to be talked about and to mourn their death. We cannot protect those we love from death or from feeling its impact, but by communication we can help them to manage and accept their loss.
Changes do happen. We are often not aware of the small, subtle everyday changes until suddenly they have happened and we realise that something is no longer as it was when our loved one was alive. Making changes can feel very uncomfortable; some changes may be inevitable and necessary for the everyday management /function of the family. Other changes may be made by choice and these are often cause mixed feelings, on one hand there may be pleasure in change and on the other guilt because those changes take a little more of the loved one away
“After my husband’s death I decided we ought to move nearer to my parents. We had only moved to this area because of his work. I longed to be near my Mum and Dad; I needed their support with my baby. I wish I hadn’t rushed it now. I feel alien in our new home and I miss familiar things. It feels like my whole world has changed”.
“I decided to redecorate our room. I don’t know why but I just wanted to pack up my wife’s things and change everything. I feel lost now like I’ve pushed her out completely and I miss the sense of her in our room”.
Sometimes well-meaning family or friends may instigate change believing that it can help the bereaved partner. The choice, the decision to change, needs to be thought through carefully and nothing done in haste. It is vitally important that remaining partners and children are consulted about any change and that they are comfortable with it.
“In spite of the attempts of family and friends and their kind offers to sort through my wife’s clothing I am not ready to do it. I want to keep her things where they are, our children like to see her things around. We talk about her, we miss her, we know that she was here with us. I know a time will come when we are ready but why don’t others allow us to just be as we are”.
Why do we try to encourage the bereaved pack up their loved one’s possessions? Why do we believe they’ll feel better for it? Is it our own awkwardness about the belongings of the dead that causes us to rush to offer to pack them for others? The physical evidence of their existence, the coat or shoe that will never be worn again, the bag or briefcase that will no longer be carried, they all remind us that their owner is no longer here, that they are gone. It does perhaps enforce the fact that we are only a friend or family member, we can only observe the grief of the family and that we cannot make it better or make the grief go away. So, we encourage the packing up, the moving on, we discourage the lingering and bring out the ‘doing well blanket’. Oh good, they’ve changed the house, gone on holiday, bought a new car – they seem to getting over it, they appear to be ‘doing well’, and that is comfortable, we can accept that, we have helped them achieve our goal – getting on with their life. But, of course, the truth is that we cannot run from the pain of bereavement. Holidays, cars, decorating and change do not make it easier or go away. It is time, measured in seconds, minutes, hours, day, weeks months and years, and only time coupled with the opportunity to communicate and feel heard will eventually help the bereaved work their way through the turmoil of grief towards the relative calm of acceptance.