How to parent when you're grieving

BY Clare Campbell-Cooper

12th Mar 2024 Life

4 min read

How to parent when you're grieving
Parenting is hard at the best of times, but navigating grief with your child is especially challenging. Clare Campbell-Cooper shares the lessons she learned after her husband's death
When our son George was born, we knew his father David was, at some stage during George’s childhood, going to die from brain cancer. We found out about my pregnancy a few weeks after we found out about David’s tumour. We calculated that I had conceived the week before David’s first seizure.
We took the decision to tell George about David’s cancer as we didn’t want to hide the truth from him nor face "the conversation" when he was older. I remember being told never to lie to your child, never to hide your tears because they need you to be honest with them. But this meant that George was raised knowing things that no child should need to know. At four, I was standing him in front of David gently telling him that this is what Daddy having a seizure looked like; he learned how to call for help and how to administer David’s rescue medication. At six, he knew about MRIs and brain scans. At seven, we took him to the hospital so he could meet David’s neurologist and see David’s scans. At nine, George went from knowing that David was going to die to understanding what that meant. And that’s when he started to grieve. The first step is often expressed as anger.
"George was raised knowing things that no child should need to know"
After David died, George and I had several conversations about things that happened when David was alive. George had some regrets. A child of twelve shouldn’t have regrets. He had to grow up too quickly. But his predominant memories of David are good and we can only support our children through these conversations and give them the tools that they need to be able to deal with the challenges that losing a parent holds.
There is no easy way, no right nor wrong way, to navigate grief with a child, no roadmap to follow. I wish there was. But here are a few lessons I learned along the way.

How to navigate grief with your child

Trust your gut instinct
You rarely get a test run, a chance to hone your skills, and thank heavens for that. Hindsight is a wonderful thing. Over the past 13 years I have had a myriad of situations that I would have done differently.
"The times I handled situations the best was when I listened to George’s cues and my gut instinct"
But, having spent many a sleepless night churning things through my mind, I have concluded that we make the best decisions we can at the time. No one tries to make a bad decision, and the times I handled situations the best was when I listened to George’s cues and my gut instinct. 
Understand that your emotions are heightened by grief
George went through stages where his resilience was paper-thin and I found myself trying to "toughen him up", thinking that he wouldn’t be able to cope with the challenges that life throws at us. But then he became so resilient that he didn’t flinch at situations that I thought would floor him.
Clare Campbell-Cooper, author of Choosing to Float
Every parent feels their children’s emotions and I found that I felt them more keenly; my urge to protect and nurture him, almost wrap in cotton wool, was so strong. When he was happy I was ecstatic. When he was sad, I was devastated.
For the first 18 months after David’s death the pendulum swing was wild and uncontrolled. What I missed was that George needed continuity, calm consistency of emotions. Peace. He didn’t need the emotional rollercoaster that I was on. I learned that too late and now I am the one with regrets. 
You will experience a myriad of contradictory emotions
I found myself reliving David’s life, starting to have regrets and getting incredibly angry. I also felt guilt, as the emotions associated with grief and loss were at war with the feeling of freedom, release from being a carer and finding love again.
"Negative emotions only become destructive if you engage with them. Let them go"
I have cried those hot, bitter tears that have scalded my cheeks. I am angry at the injustice of such a wonderful, kind man being taken. But I have learned to let the emotions pass. Negative emotions only become destructive if you engage with them. Let them go
Do what feels right to you
No two situations are the same: no child is the same, the circumstances of death are not the same, we are not the same. There is advice to listen to, books to read, processes to follow, but none fit exactly right.  A "one-size-fits-all" approach doesn’t work. Don’t feel pressured to do anything that doesn’t feel right for you or your child. Listen to your instincts.
Put your oxygen mask on first
A few months ago, I was told parenting through grief is like the oxygen mask on an aeroplane. Put yours on first. You can’t help your child, or children, if you are not managing to keep your own head above water. So take time for yourself to process your feelings and to seek the help that you need. Give yourself space to find yourself again. 
My main advice is go gently and be forgiving: with yourselves, your children, with others. Hold yourselves softly and with love. For one day, the sun will shine, your spirits will lift and you will release that you can live again.
Clare Campbell-Cooper’s new book Choosing to Float is out now, priced at £8.99 and available from Amazon.co.uk. Clare will be giving at least 10 per cent of her net royalties to Brain Tumour Research.
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