Grief can be all consuming. When you need to also be a dad to your children. Parenting after a loss can feel impossible.
Plus, we know that men traditionally are taught to hold in their emotions, we try to fix problems for everyone else, and we downplay what we’re experiencing. A major loss like this is no exception.
Unfortunately, this may put us particularly at risk during these times. Those bottled up, horrific emotions are going to get to us in some way. It’d be better if it didn’t happen when we are with our kids.
So what can we do?
1. Seek Support
I’m starting with this because it’s often the most difficult for a lot of guys. Yet the sooner you realize that you’re not going to get through this alone, the sooner you can start to feel some relief.
And by “relief” I don’t mean you’ll feel “better” right away or that you’ll ever “get over it”. I mean that you’ll feel less alone which is a major issue when experiencing the loss (any loss) of a partner.
As a father, you’ve made plans for taking care of children as a team. You had roles. There were expectations of not having to make decisions by yourself, but that’s all up in the air now.
You’re going to need support. You’re going to need someone to help you with the parts of parenting that may not have been your strong point (don’t worry, you can learn and you will get better at it), and you’re going to need someone who’s there for you and not just to help with the kids.
This support might be a friend, a family member, and in-law, but it may also be a counselor. Not because you suddenly have a mental illness or are stuck in grief, but because you will absolutely benefit from someone who’s main concern is not your children (or at least not just your children).
Someone who is there for you.
Many men I know not only don’t think they need this, they don’t believe they deserve it. But they do.
You do if this is what you’re going through. There are ways to heal and go through the grieving process with your children (see below), but there are also a number of thoughts and feelings that you need to do without them there.
2. Let Your Kids See You Cry
Many men are against crying—some haven’t done it since they were toddlers. I was at a funeral once where a teary-eyed dad told his daughter that he was “sweating”—apparently even at the death of his mother he didn’t want his child to think he was a man who cried.
The biggest reason I hear against crying is that parents, men in particular, are worried about how this will affect their children.
In all things, at all times, we are modeling for our kids. They are learning how to do everything by watching us, and that means that we are teaching them “how” to be angry, “how” to be thankful, and—more to today’s point—“how” to be sad.
Not letting them see you cry or be upset means you are teaching them that crying and showing your emotions are not acceptable—big boys don’t cry or get upset, is the message being taught. Really take a think about whether this is the lesson you want them to learn. No one has benefitted from bottling up emotions and I’ve sat with way too many men who come to counseling almost solely to learn how to regain access to those pent-up emotions.
Don’t misunderstand, you don’t want to get to the point where your children are regularly needing to console you. There are places to go so that you can just let it all out in the healthiest way you can. And if you’re afraid you’re so disconnected from your emotions that you won’t be able to stop yourself from “losing control” then it’s time to really learn more about all that you’ve been holding in. Because you’re going to need it on your parenting journey. You’re going to need to know that you’re strong enough to be emotional…in a healthy way.
3. Talk About Your Shared Loss Together
Another message you don’t want to give to your kids is that you can’t handle talking about their deceased mom or dad. You may be surprised how attuned kids are to this. They will often need your permission to talk about their loss and that means you shouldn’t try to push this aside by avoiding memories, taking away pictures, or anything like that. In fact, try to do these things together and model how you’re expressing your sadness.
This is also a good time to connect to your cultural traditions around grief and loss, particularly if you and your partner had different rituals around death. You’ll want to be able to pass on both to your children as another way that they can stay connected with their deceased parent.
4. Find a “Parenting After a Loss” Peer Group
There are groups for everything these days. Even if you’re not a “joiner” you’ll be surprised about the benefits of connecting with others who are experiencing something similar. One issue that many widowed dads have told me is how incredibly alone they feel, especially as they see the overwhelming number of couples and 2-parent family gatherings everywhere they go.
Connecting with other men who’re parenting after a loss can be really supportive.
Others will have their own story and you may agree or disagree with how they’ve been managing their grief and their parenting decisions, and that’s fine. The point is to be with others who “get” what you’re going through in a way no one else really can right now, no matter how well-meaning they are.
5. Distract, but Don’t Disconnect
There’s nothing wrong with taking up a new hobby, or making time for an old one. Reconnecting to work, keeping busy—these are all fine things to do, but be mindful of whether you are using them to fully disconnect from the pain of your loss. Once these distractions become a way to avoid the grief, the sadness, the anger, the regret, the fear then you’re going to want to reconsider the amount of time you’re spending on these things.
Be particularly mindful of things like substance use and porn as these are pretty classic ways to try to bypass all the negative emotions, but actually end up making you feel worse in the long run. You don’t want to compound how difficult all of this is.
No part of parenting after a loss is easy. As grief itself can take over us, it can be challenging to make sure that your children don’t lose both parents when one dies.
If nothing internal motivates you to take care of yourself, then just don’t forget that your children are watching you throughout all of this. They need you to be strong, but that means they need you to show them how to be vulnerable. They need you to be brave, and that means showing them that you allow yourself to cry and be sad.
You’d be wary if you saw them avoiding difficult issues or not telling you about their challenges in school or with friends. If you know they should talk about, then you definitely should take your own advice.
If you’d like to talk more about what you’re going through and how you can continue to parent through it, please contact me for a brief consultation to see if it would be helpful for us to work together.
Justin Lioi, LCSW is a men’s mental health and relationship expert. He practices counseling in Brooklyn, NY (and online throughout New York State and internationally.) He received his degree from New York University and has been working with men and their families for over 10 years. Justin is on the Board of the National Association of Social Workers and writes a weekly column for the Good Men Project called Unmasking Masculinity. He can be found on local and national podcasts talking about assertiveness, anger, self-compassion, all with the goal of becoming the man you want to be.