Erika, The Bonus Mom
My Mother-in-Love (what I call a mother-in-law) passed away 10 days before our wedding. Blink. Blink again. Reread it. Yes, she passed away 10 days before our wedding. There is no easy way to talk about it. Or drop the news. Or prepare people for when I say it. I don’t know another way to say it than to just say it. One of the most devastating and tragic things any family could experience happened less than two weeks before what, many people told us, was supposed to be one of the happiest days of our lives. To put that into perspective for you, my initiation into parenthood and marriage was, and will forever be, intertwined with grief and loss. In pre-marital counseling, they didn’t teach me how to prepare for “for worse” before we ever got to experience “for better.”
Grief is complicated. Even without children involved, grief . . . and death . . . and loss . . . is complicated. And messy. And stressful. And ugly. And heartbreaking. With children, I felt all of that punctuated with little stabbing pains every time one of them looked in my eyes, started to cry and asked “why did Nana have to die?” They definitely did not teach me how to navigate that in pre-marital counseling or parenting books.
I didn’t, and still often don’t, know how to navigate this. When Ma (what everyone calls my M-I-L) passed away, we were heartbroken. Devastated. Even now, as I write this, the tears are freely flowing, falling down my cheeks and landing in tiny puddles on my computer keyboard. The death of a parent is basically impossible to wrap your head around. I still haven’t fully grasped this new reality. And, in the state of shock, grief, rage, devastation, and other generally unpleasant things we were feeling, we had to tell our children. On the phone. We couldn’t even hug them. But we still had to be their parents.
I have to pause here and really give a shout out to my husband’s ex-wife and her family. We may not have everything perfect but the three of us (plus her parents, and his, and mine) make a pretty good team. And she was there to catch the tears that we couldn’t. To give the hugs and cuddles that don’t translate over a phone or FaceTime video chat. To love and support and nurture. And, to remind the kids how much we loved them even though we weren’t in Florida to comfort them.
Through all of this – the overwhelming feelings that the death of a loved one brings – we still have to be parents. Not just me and Roger. Every parent who has to parent through grief. Almost immediately, hubs and I (and his ex-wife) had to decide if the kids should come for the funeral. My husband was reluctant to have them come for many reasons. Could they handle it? Could we handle it? What would a schedule change of that magnitude do to an already tight travel schedule (the funeral being just four days before our wedding)? Were any of us, especially the children, prepared for the emotional lows and highs that come with a funeral and wedding in the same week?
Spoiler alert: NOBODY is prepared for that.
It was me, putting on my new “Parent Hat,” that actually encouraged him to make sure they were there. Even though it would be difficult, scary, and their first experience with the death of a close family member, I felt it was important for us to be there to support them through this, help them grieve, and also learn to navigate difficult conversations with them. The thing about parenthood is that, well, the conversations don’t get easier as they get older. To be honest, I’m not sure how we managed to navigate the conversation – or many of the subsequent conversations and parenting moments – at all, through our fragile feelings and ahead of our actual marriage. We were literally navigating two of life’s most emotionally charged events – death of a parent and a new marriage – and parenting at the same time. I’m still a little in awe of that.
And here’s the thing I have learned about parenting through grief. You just do it. It’s not pretty, it’s messy. It’s ugly. Sometimes it’s beautiful. But whatever it is, you figure it out. Or you don’t. But you still do it. Some moments – like comforting your grieving children during a funeral – will be absolutely gut wrenching. In moments like that, you might be like me and try to bury your own grief to only tend to the needs of your children. Some moments, when your kids cry, you will cry. And cry. And cry. And they my stop and you’ll still cry. Or you may stop and they’ll still cry. And all of it is OK.
Through all of this – this awful, still mind blowing experience – I have found that grieving while parenting has given me the opportunity to have open, honest and really beautiful conversations with my children. We talk about life and love and loss. We talk about why it’s OK cry and feel sad. We talk about how it’s OK to express our feelings. It’s OK to miss Nana. And feel sad about the people we miss. We share memories. Sometimes we laugh until we cry or cry until we laugh. We help each other grieve.
I help them remain and stay kids even through their grief.
And they help me parent through mine.