If you’ve been widowed by COVID, and are now raising your kids and teens as an “only parent”—welcome to the club.
The club nobody wants to join.
This club sucks. If you’re a member, it means your partner died. Your kids now have a dead dad, or a dead mom—along with an estimated 40,000 of their peers, according to a new study from the Journal of the American Medical Association.
You may be feeling very alone right now. Wondering how you’re going to raise your kids by yourself, and what you need to know as a newly widowed parent. Wondering who can even help with some of these questions.
I don’t know what it’s like to lose a spouse during a global pandemic, but I do know what it’s like to lose one far too soon. My husband, Dennis, died of brain cancer five years ago at the age of forty-four. Our kids were nine and eleven.
The author with her late husband, Dennis, and their two children in September 2015. Photo credit Rebecca Ort Photography.
I wanted to know: how was losing their dad at such young ages not going to totally destroy them? How do I do this thing called widowed parenting?
I set about looking for answers. After realizing that I couldn’t possibly be the only widowed parent feeling lost and alone, I created the Widowed Parent Podcast to share what I was learning.
Nearly a hundred interviews later, here’s one thing I know to be true: you are not alone, either. COVID is making this problem bigger and more visible—and there are definitely some unique aspects of grieving alone during a pandemic—but there are also some universal challenges of being a widowed parent, no matter how one gets here.
The expertise and perspectives of my guests on the show have helped me and many other widowed parents with the resources, knowledge, and examples we need to make this journey just a bit easier. Here are a few tips I’ve learned along the way.
Be honest with your kids
One of the most important lessons I’ve learned from my guest experts is this: it’s critical to be honest with kids, even about difficult topics like illness, death, and grief.
This is hard advice to follow. Often, we want to shield our kids from bad news and scary situations. It’s tempting to make promises we know we can’t keep, or to not disclose facts that feel uncomfortable or scary.
There are two main problems with this approach. First, kids are smart. They can usually tell when something is ‘off,’ and when adults are hiding something from them. They may not know exactly what is going on, but they are likely to imagine a scenario that is even worse than the truth.
Second, it’s vital that kids be able to trust their surviving parent. If a well-meaning parent is not honest with their kids now, it breaks that bond of trust—which is vital to the long-term development of healthy relationships of all kinds. It’s much better to have the hard conversations now than to repair the damage caused by mistrust later.
So, go ahead, talk with your kids about loss and grief. Talk about COVID. Share what you know, and be honest in an age-appropriate way.
Here’s a good rule of thumb: If a kid is old enough to ask the question, they’re old enough to hear the answer. And, if you don’t know the answer, it’s also ok to say, “That is a great question. I don’t know the answer, but thank you for asking it.”
Check in on your kids’ emotions
Knowing what I know now about children’s grief, I wish I’d tried sooner to open conversations with my kids about the emotional impact of their dad’s illness and death.
During his last few months on hospice at home, I think I was relieved that, for the most part, they weren’t acting out. After he died, I was afraid of “reminding” them, or upsetting them at a moment when they didn’t appear to be upset.
But here’s the thing—there was no way they “forgot” that their dad was dead. Bringing it up wouldn’t have reminded them of anything they didn’t already know. What it would have done was send a message that it was ok to talk about it. That it is ok to be sad. Or mad.
Even if they didn’t want to talk about it right then, just opening that door would have sent an important message that the topic wasn’t off-limits. It’s common for kids to worry about upsetting their surviving parent, so it’s vital that they know they can talk about their difficult feelings, and their dead parent, with us.
So, go ahead and tackle the emotional piece head-on. Ask your kids how they are feeling. When they express sadness, anger, or frustration, validate it. Don’t be afraid to say, “Yes, this is unfair. Yes, I’m sad too. How is this for you?”
When they do open up, your job is to listen. Don’t be tempted to talk them out of their feelings, push them to look for the silver lining in the situation, or to add any sentence starting with, “but….” These approaches will most likely make them feel misunderstood, and discourage them from bringing it up in the future.
Shortly after my husband died, a friend recommended that I check out a local grief center. I wondered: how do I know if we need grief support?
Here’s what I’ve since learned: grief support isn’t something you have to hold off on until you need it. I think of it kind of like swimming lessons. If you want your kids to be safe around water, it makes sense to equip them with the skills needed to keep themselves afloat. Similarly, if you want your kids to begin integrating their grief into their lives in a healthy way, grief support programs can help them learn skills and tools they will use for years to come.
There are grief centers in communities all across the country, and they typically have groups for different ages of kids and teens. Many have groups for parents, too. Participating in such groups brings another big benefit: connecting with peers who have also lost a parent helps kids feel less alone.
It’s also important to understand that grief support is not the same as therapy. Both are important, and both have their place. If you or your kids are struggling, seeing a therapist—either instead of or in addition to grief support—could be helpful. Ask your doctor for local recommendations, or check out Psychology Today’s “Find a Therapist” tool.
To find a grief support program near you, try these searchable directories from The Dougy Center and the National Alliance for Grieving Children, and watch these short interviews with grief centers in various communities to learn more about some of the programs. For online peer support, check out the Young Widows and Widowers of COVID-19 Facebook group.
. . .
I ask all my guests on the show the same question at the end of the interview: “If you could say one thing to newly widowed parents, what would it be?” It’s remarkable how many say some version of this essential message to widowed parents: you are not alone.
I know it can feel that way—especially now, as the past year has driven us all into socially-distanced configurations and, far too often, isolation.
Know that you are not alone. Seek out those who have traveled this path before you, as well as those widowed more recently by COVID. Be honest with your kids, and support their emotions. Connect with one of the many peer grief programs in communities all around the country.
I’ve been thinking about those kids whose parent died of COVID during this past year. They all deserve a chance to thrive.
From one widowed parent to another: I see you. It’s hard. And you’ve got this.
. . .
Jenny Lisk is the host of the Widowed Parent Podcast and the author of Future Widow: Losing My Husband, Saving My Family, and Finding My Voice. Her work has been featured in the Washington Post and ParentMap. On her “Hundred Dreams” list is riding a camel. And milking a cow. And raising $44,000 for brain cancer research, in honor of her husband’s forty-four years. She is passionate about helping widowed parents increase their family’s well-being. Jenny lives in Redmond, Washington, with her two teenagers.
You can download her free guides What I’ve Learned About Widowed Parenting and How to Be Helpful: Tips for Allies of Widowed Families. Connect with her on social media @liskjenny.