My middle child loves to go to the cemetery. He loves the wide open spaces and the funny statues. He loves to look at the gravestones and read the old-fashioned names. We hold hands and explore together. He loves to be there, even though, at 7 years old, he is much too young to have to visit his father’s grave there.
His 9-year-old sister refuses to go. Yes, she misses her dad, but she doesn’t want to be sad, and she knows she’d get “teary-eyed” if she went there. She also doesn’t want me to be sad, and she certainly doesn’t want me to cry in public, so she’d much rather avoid the cemetery.
But I think it’s important to go back to the place where, only four months ago, we placed their father’s body in the ground. I don’t want it to be a scary place. I want it to be a place where we can remember their dad together. And yet, my daughter simply refuses. Because she’s a people-pleaser, she will tell me that she’ll think about it, and then will refuse when the time comes.
I am their mother, their sole living parent, and so I make the decisions. But what do I do when I don’t really know what I should do? Should I push her to go, knowing it would probably be a good experience to spend some time thinking about her dad and talking about his life? Or should I let her stay home, knowing that she might need a break from all the discussion of death that she’s endured in the past few months?
When do I push my kids out of their comfort zones, and when do I pull them close and keep them safe and warm? It’s every parent’s dilemma.
I think I was probably like a lot of parents before my husband got sick last fall. I am a teacher, and I ran a decently tight ship at home. I tried to set limits, pushed my kids to attend activities they committed to even if they didn’t feel like going, and made sure we adhered to a schedule — and definitely a bedtime.
But I am not the same parent that my children had a few months ago. Grief has changed me. I can’t tell you how much television my kids watch on a daily basis, but I do know that they can all quote lengthy passages from the Disney show “Jessie.” My middle kid was on a basketball team that started in November, and though he went to a few games, once my husband got really sick I stopped pushing him to go. It just took one “But I really don’t want to go!” and I relented. We haven’t done a proper family dinner in months because I am not really cooking and because the dining room table is filled with bank statements and funeral receipts and forms from my attorney.
Right after my husband died, I got a lot of thoughtful advice from friends and family. Gently, many of them sent me emails that started with something like, “Here’s a little thing I know about,” and attached a link to a grief group or camp or counselor. It was mostly helpful, but there was just so much information, most of which was about getting my kids to therapy and getting them there quickly. They were seeing the school counselors, so I wasn’t sure they needed more help, but what did I know? I had never lived through this.
I eventually found an outside grief counselor who works solely with kids. She was knowledgeable, kind and warm. I think everyone felt better that I was getting help for my kids; I even saw my mother-in-law mention how “everyone was getting therapy” to a friend on her Facebook page.
In many ways, therapy was great for my kids, and the counselor helped me more fully understand what was going on inside their heads. After one particularly long session, the counselor came out and told me my son thought that his dad had gotten colon cancer from eating too many hot dogs. Luckily, my sister, a nurse, was with me that day, and she explained to him why this was not true and why he didn’t need to worry when eating hot dogs.
But therapy was disruptive to the school day and definitely to after-school playtime. The kids resisted going for that reason. One day, my daughter finally said to me: “I don’t want to go. I like the therapist, but I feel fine. Can we just stop doing all this stuff, Mom? I just want to have a normal life.”
What’s the answer here? I asked around, but I don’t have any other widow friends with young kids. They exist, and I’ve met a few in my area, but none is one of my trusted people.
Before, it was easy to make a parenting decision, and when I did, my husband almost always agreed with me. At the very least, we backed each other up in front of our children and debated the decision later. Sometimes I was wrong. For example, a few years ago I was furious at my husband for taking our then almost-5-year-old to “The Force Awakens,” since I felt he was much too young to go to such a movie. But seeing the original “Star Wars” movies was what my husband had done in the 1980s with his own dad, and it meant a lot for him to take our son. I’m glad he overrode me, because our son has that memory with his dad forever.
But now there’s no one to argue with over parenting. There’s no one to back me up, either. There’s just me, and it’s as though I have to start from scratch.
So what do I do when my 4-year-old gets upset because I’m ignoring him and slams his bedroom door? This was once the cardinal sin in our house, and a definite timeout. The second that it happened, I felt my anger flare, and I yelled his name. He immediately started crying and ran to me, screaming, “Mommy, mommy, mommy,” and buried his head in my lap. He wouldn’t let go. What am I supposed to do with this? Follow my old script, and tell him that there are consequences for his actions? Or reach down and pull him close, reminding him that his mom loves him so much even when he messes up?
Before my husband left this Earth, I wanted my children to be so many things: good students, thoughtful friends, creative minds, amazing guitarists. I guess I still want all those things, in theory. But if I am honest, I want only two things: I want them to feel safe, and I want them to feel loved.
And so, my 4-year-old got a hug that day, and he got to finish crying in my lap. He did not get a timeout. This seems to be my new mode of parenting. Now, instead of encouraging my kids to work on a class project or practice an instrument, I often find myself cuddled up with them on the couch, watching bad TV with three little heads on my lap. Instead of telling my children that it’s bedtime, I lie down with them in their beds, watching them fall asleep and thinking about how much they all resemble their father.
I’m still pushing, at least a bit. When my youngest cries that he doesn’t want to go to school, I make him go. When his older brother resists going to church, we still attend. And when my daughter doesn’t want to go back to her guitar lessons without her dad, I tell her she still has to go, but I’ll go in his place. I hug them tightly when I hold the line, but these are times I do stand firm.
But I am a different parent now, and that means that some of my former rules just aren’t that important. It’s still shocking every morning to wake up without my husband next to me. But because I’m too tired to carry them back to their beds in the middle of the night, I wake up with our two little boys in his place. The symbolism of this is not lost on me.
I’m still trying to figure out how to get my daughter to go to the cemetery. I push a little each day. But I also pull her close, tell her she makes me and her father so proud, and remember that she and her brothers just need to feel two things. Safe and loved.