ParentingParenting when a spouse passes away

Parenting when a spouse passes away

The death of a spouse holds the number one spot on the Holmes-Rahe Life Stress Inventory, and if you are a parent, this loss can be even more dramatic. Parents logically wish to buffer children against pain and grief, but when a spouse dies, they also need to take care of themselves. As noted by renowned psychiatrist, Elisabeth Kübler-Ross, grief comprises five stages: denial, anger, bargaining, depression, and acceptance. Human beings go through these stages at different paces, flitting between one stage and the other and sometimes returning to a stage like denial, even after they have seemingly come to the stage of acceptance. How can you and your children go through these stages and one day find meaning and joy in life once again?

Your Heart Needs Healing

If you have lost a partner, it definitely is a time to lean on the support networks you have built throughout your lifetime. Family, friends, and colleagues you have meaningful relationships with can all help you in different ways, be it through listening to you, taking care of chores, and even helping with kids (you might ask a friend to spend time in your home with your child at a time when you just feel like a good cry, or accept another parent’s offer to take your child along to football practice with their children on a given day). By allowing people to help you in small and big ways, you can work on areas like stress reduction and sleep. A Rice University study has shown that people who have lost a partner are more likely to have sleep problems, which can up the risk of heart disease. Exercise self-compassion and make the most of the power of community.

Getting Your Finances in Order

As a parent, you may worry about the financial effect that losing your spouse can have on your family. You may have relied on your spouse’s salary for aspects such as housing, children’s schools, etc. Relying on a good financial adviser can help at times when you are trying to figure out how to make ends meet. By making a few changes (perhaps downsizing a home, starting a savings plan, or liquidating assets), you can at least ensure that you are free of financial worries.

Knowing the Effect of Grief on Children

Because children can be so resilient, we can sometimes overlook the depth of their grief. Various studies have been carried out on the effects of grief on children. One study published in JAMA found that the sudden death of a parent can significantly increase the likelihood of depression and PTSD in kids. Therefore, it is important to be on the lookout for signs of ‘complicated grief’, which can loosely be defined as grief that does not subside. Another study published in the Archives of General Psychiatry found that children and teens were more likely to develop depression if their surviving parent had complicated or prolonged grief as well. Because grief can have long-term effects on a child’s happiness and wellbeing, it is important for both the surviving parent and children to receive professional help if necessary.

What are Signs that Therapy May be Helpful?

A new test for assessing complicated grief (or persistent complex bereavement disorder) has been developed for youths. Entitled the PCBD Checklist for Youth, it caters to children who have displayed symptoms of complicated grief for at least six months. Signs to watch out for include mistrust, feelings of isolation, feeling that one’s life has no meaning, anger, extreme denial, and even feeling nothing. It can be hard for a parent to assess if their child is simply going through the relevant grief cycles or if they are battling a more complex bereavement disorder. When in doubt, parents should seek help from a qualified grief therapist, so as to receive a diagnosis and recommended treatment as soon as possible.

If you are a parent who has just lost their life partner, the biggest challenge can involve finding a way to handle your own grief while helping your children do the same. By taking care of yourself, delegating tasks, and putting finances in order, you can at least eliminate everyday worries that can add to your stress. Be on the lookout for signs of prolonged grief in yourself and your children. Cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT) and specialized grief therapies can go a long way to help you and your children heal and feel that despite your loss, life can still have a beautiful purpose.


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