Learning how to help your kids after the death of your spouse is one of the most important things you can do for them and yourself.
I was only a few paces out of the Emergency room when my teenage daughter called for an update on her dad. Before I could comprehend that I was a widow, I had to tell my children their father was gone. I wondered how I could ever deliver that blow.
Every widow with children at home faces the challenge of helping her children grieve well. Caring for little ones while navigating your grief can feel terrifying. How can you help them when you aren’t sure you’ll make it through the day without “falling apart.” The truth is, you are more capable than you know—and “falling apart” (aka displaying your emotions) may be what your kids need to see.
Emily Jones, Founder of Brave Widow, remembers one of the most helpful conversations with her four children, ages 10-19. “ We just sat down and [I told them] this is going to be a difficult process…there’s going to be some days where we’re irritable and we don’t know why we are sad or angry…but we can assume, probably safely it’s going to be related to grief.”
Jones remembers many open conversations with her children, allowing them the space to be grumpy and allowing herself to be honest about her own sad moments. Grief experts affirm the need for good communication while emphasizing age-appropriate conversation.
Before the age of four, for example, children don’t see death as irreversible. They may ask when Daddy is coming home again. For them, it’s important to avoid using expressions about death that can be confusing, such as “daddy went to sleep, passed away, or was lost.” It’s better to be gently and age-appropriately honest. “Daddy’s heart got sick, and the doctors couldn’t fix it. He died, and he lives in Heaven now.”
Every stage of childhood presents a different way of relating to the world. The Developmental Responses to Grief from the National Grief Center for Children and Families can help you understand how your child’s age affects their understanding of death.
“I think the biggest thing for me was … checking with them,” recalls Jones, who regularly included the memory of her children’s father in the experiences they were having at the time, whether a family dinner or a trip to Florida.
Learning how to talk about grief with kids takes time. You’ll also find that everyone grieves just a little differently. Children, in particular, grieve differently from adults. Older children grieve differently from younger children. Personality can also play a tremendous role in what grief looks like from one person to another. Finding help for you and your kids to grieve well is an essential next step.
Grief support resources may not be obvious, but they are everywhere if you know how to look. Jones recalls pouring through books and checklists. She immediately put her children in counseling. But getting your own grief therapy may be one of the best things you can do for your children.
Grief therapy and grief support groups such as GriefShare can help ease the physical and cognitive responses to grief so that you can be a more present and confident caregiver. Other forms of therapy include Acceptance and Commitment Therapy (ACT), which refocuses our thoughts from negative feelings and circumstances to begin fostering positive thoughts and healthier living patterns.
Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT) is another common therapy that focuses on identifying needed changes in thought patterns to influence behavior. Play Therapy is sometimes used with children to gain insights into feelings and help them process emotions.
Online groups on Facebook and other social media platforms offer the support of hundreds and thousands of widows and widowers like you. Many grievers have found connections in church groups. Churches often provide good initial support. As the weeks and months wane, learning how to ask for help from family and friends will become critical.
Faced with juggling the responsibilities of two parents while working full-time, Jones was thankful for her in-laws, who lived close by and remained available. She admits that she had to learn to ask for help—and sometimes that’s difficult because we don’t always know what to ask for. Her “Helping Hands” checklist provides some ideas.
As time passes, you may feel distant and different from the people in your life before your spouse died. Some widows find new support networks, but before you do, consider that the death of your spouse changed the dynamics of all your relationships. Friends and family members may not know how to relate in new ways.
Believe it or not, asking for help is not only a great way to make new friends—it can build bridges back to old ones because it establishes trust. Rebuilding and strengthening your network of friends and family creates a sense of relational stability in your children’s lives and gives you the bandwidth to be available for them.
Availability can be a rare commodity. Single parents can’t cover all the bases they did as a couple, tag-teaming home maintenance, daily chores, and family time. For Emily Jones, developing new routines meant creating room in her schedule by letting some tasks go and prioritizing others, creating space for routine.
Childhood grief experts agree that enabling children to return to a consistent routine following the death of a parent is vital to their sense of security. Routines provide structure and a sense of accomplishment and promote feelings of safety and normalcy.
Car rides to activities can become one-on-one opportunities to check in with your kids about their feelings. Participating in scheduled downtime with family and friends reaffirms your children’s place in the world.
Routines that foster relationships can be the most healing. Jones, who includes time for church involvement, openly shared about her family’s relationship with God. “I don’t know how I would have moved through this process without my faith and without actively seeking a relationship with God.”
Faith provides meaning amid suffering. She knows that the pain they endure isn’t for nothing. It’s used for the sake of others. As her children watch her reaching out to help others, they hear a very different message than the one their mother once shuddered to tell them.
It’s the story of healing we all hope to tell.