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The Lessons of Parenting Through Grief

One of the biggest gifts motherhood has given me is an improved ability to deal with hard times.
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Depressed woman with head in hands
Depressed woman with head in hands

Parenthood demands that we give everything we have, every day. Giving so much of yourself while juggling work, friendships and family can be tough, even when things are running smoothly. When life throws us serious curveballs and we find ourselves facing major loss or disappointment, being constantly present and positive for our children requires a seemingly impossible level of strength and fortitude.

One of the biggest gifts motherhood has given me is an improved ability to deal with hard times. My son deserves a mom who sees, hears and plays with him. It doesn't matter what else I have going on. My pre-motherhood days of hiding out in bed for weeks after a breakup or ruminating endlessly over a painful experience are long over. The beautiful, wide-eyed, ever-observing sponge of a child who depends on me 24/7 requires that I put my stuff on a shelf and be here now, no matter what.

A few years ago, when I separated from my son's father, I got a crash course in compartmentalizing grief and stress for my child's sake. I learned to take a deep breath, put aside whatever I was feeling and just sit down on the floor and play with my son. I learned to wait until after he was in bed each night to deal with my emotions. I soon realized that not only was this good for him, it was also saving me from getting stuck in a negative frame of mind.

Last year I lost a dear friend very suddenly to a disease I didn't even know she had. The shock and helplessness of this hit me with great force. I was angry that I hadn't known she was ill or been there to hold her hand. A deep sadness set in as I realized that my friend, who had been like a sister to me for many years, was really gone. The tears would come at random times -- while I was washing dishes, walking to the park, putting my son to bed. He was too young to understand death, so all I could do was tell him that Mommy was sad because one of her friends was very sick. Whenever the grief came, I let it wash over me silently. I held myself together until he was in bed, and then I let myself feel the loss fully.

Recently, both my stepfather and my grandfather passed away in the space of three days. They were two of the most important people in my world. Losing them so close together is still incomprehensible. I was on autopilot caring for family members for the first few days. Once it was quiet again, the tidal wave of grief arrived and I wanted to crawl into bed and stay there. Yet my son needs breakfast, baths, love, attention. He needs his mom, and he needs me not to be a mess. There is no option to fall apart. As with the loss of my friend, I can't stop the tears when they come, but I force myself to wait until my son is asleep to let down the wall and truly feel the grief.

Somehow, in learning to manage my pain for my son, I've learned a lot about myself. I'm more resilient than I ever thought I could be. I'm far stronger than I would have asked myself to be, pre-motherhood. Truthfully, I do sometimes miss being able to wander my apartment in pajamas, crying and watching sad movies, eating chocolate and pizza until I fell asleep on the couch. I miss being able to call a friend and sob aloud. I miss allowing the emotions to take over and run their course when they need to. But I've also learned that it is possible to get through things without breaking. It's possible to have a broken heart and hold it together. Having to be present for the day-to-day tasks keeps me above water.

Don't get me wrong; I want my son to understand that life can be hard and that it's OK to feel and express emotion. My son sees me cry. He recognizes when I'm hurting and offers a hug or a kind word. He is now old enough to understand that Grandpa and Great-Grandpa have gone to heaven, and that this means we won't get to see them anymore. He knows that Mommy feels sad about this, and that it will take time for it to get better.

But he also knows that I'm never going to break. He knows that when he needs me, I'm right here. He knows that sometimes we feel sad, we take some time to regroup, and then we pick ourselves up and make a sandwich. We get our shoes on and go for a bike ride. We can remember those we have lost while we play in the sand at the beach. We can honor the sadness and still cherish the good things in our day.

Life carries on -- even when it sometimes feels like it should stop so that we can catch our breath and dry our tears. Sometimes we fall, and sometimes we surprise ourselves with our ability to cope. Without my son, I would never have known how strong I could be. No matter how much I give to him each day, he gives me so much more. That bright little face looking up at me reminds me that there is so much to be happy about, even in the darkest of times.