Raising a child who has lost a parent
February 25, 2017 6:04 AM   Subscribe

Looking to hear from people who lost a parent at a very young age. What helped you live a normal, happy life? What didn't?

A week ago, this was me. The news has gotten worse. There is a possibility that my husband will see the baby's first birthday but not much beyond it. I'm devastated and this is not what I planned, but I'm trying to keep my focus on the path forward for me and my son. Specifically---

- The balance respectfully discussing, acknowledging and making Dad a presence without making life mournful and sad all the time

- Being 'enough' for him. Specifically, it has been suggested to me already that I introduce TV and keep the radio on so the baby hears voices other than mine

- This will not be the Gilmore Girls. He's a boy. There are three local grandfathers so he'll have men in his life, but still...

I don't even know what else. I guess I just want some reassurance that it's possible to raise an emotionally healthy and happy child given the circumstance. I feel like my life was messed up a little from not having my dad involved as much. But, that was a divorce and he didn't step up. This feels different.
posted by ficbot to Human Relations (19 answers total) 12 users marked this as a favorite
I'm so sorry you have to deal with this.

I can only tell you what did not work for me. I lost both parents at a really young age. I was being cared for by family thankfully. But they never explained to me what was happening or why it was happening. And they never talked to me about them. So I don't know very much about them and there is no connection. It has left me feeling very adrift even 30 years later.

Try to create a connection for your son, tell him about your husband and how much you loved each other and just whatever lovely things and memories you have. If your son and husband have similar eyes, make sure he knows that and so on. Best of luck to you.
posted by mokeydraws at 8:04 AM on February 25, 2017 [9 favorites]

Oh dear, sorry you're going through this.

Here goes the encouragement - many children grow up in single parent homes and become balanced, happy individuals. And by the sound of it you have a supportive family and network so he will have other loving adults around him.

Your son is much too young to have any meaningful memories of this time of distress, of possibly losing his father or his father as a person. So if this transpires his normal will be just you and it will be enough - he won't know any different.

I am not a parent but what seems to happen is that not knowing can be distressing to a lot of people who 'don't know' for reasons. So as much as you feel up to it you can fill in this void by telling him about his dad, your life together etc. Get others to do the same. Your home will not be this mournful place if you share joyful memories with your family and share them with your son.

Hopefully, should this transpire, you will go through your own grieving process and will start to find joy in life again before he is old enough to form many concrete memories. What are your earliest memories? My first 'memories' are what I can only describe as 'flashes' when I was a toddler, the first concrete memories are of things when I was about 4/5. So whilst this feels really immediate and scary, insurmountable and impossible you will not feel like you do now in 2-4 years time.
posted by koahiatamadl at 8:12 AM on February 25, 2017 [4 favorites]

Best answer: I'm so sorry to hear about your situation. I hope my perspective on losing my mother at a very young age can help.

When I was three, my mother was diagnosed with cancer. I was not very cognizant about what was going on at the time and only have flashbulb memories of different events that went on at the time. During her treatment and care, my dad worked a pretty high pressure job and was gone a fair amount between that and caring for my mother. Family friends and family members were always around and stayed with me. Near the end, as things got worse, my mother's sisters took turns flying to Austin to stay with me while my parents dealt with everything. I don't recall knowing explicitly what was happening and remember being distracted by all the people who had come to play with me. She passed away when I was five years old and I don't have any memories of her, just an image I've drawn up from what I've been told and what I've found out on my own.

I am an only child and my dad was the only person who raised me. For all of my life it's seemed like the most normal thing in the world to just have him as a parent. He has been the most important person in my life and I can't even begin to describe how much he's meant to me. He worked ten to eleven hour days and I spent a lot of time in daycares as a kid, of which I have fond memories. These gave me an opportunity to interact with other children, play, and learn. He would always be there to pick me up from daycare and we would go home for dinner, to watch TV, and read a book together. I was also involved with a lot of activities, mostly sports like soccer and baseball, and he was incredible about being there as much as he could.

I will mention that right after my mom passed away, I saw a child psychiatrist. Once again, I don't remember much about this other than that we played some games and that I talked about nightmares I'd had. I imagine that seeing him was helpful and important, but being so young, it's difficult to remember. I'm also sure that I struggled with her death as a child, but don't remember much of that either.

As I grew older, I spent a fair amount of time on my own and grew to be very comfortable with entertaining myself and supporting myself. My dad was still as present as always, but this alone time replaced the daycares as I grew out of them. Late afternoons and summers were spent with friends or watching TV or reading, a favorite past time. Dad and I would take trips together, read, play sports. He was incredibly active in my life and focused on me.

I graduated high school with honors, college with a high GPA, and am currently in graduate school pursuing my degree in Library Science. I have a strong group of friends, have had good relationships, am, as far as I can tell, pretty well adjusted, and have been lucky to work in a number of good jobs so far and develop strong bonds with my coworkers.

I feel like it's worth mentioning that while growing up, we didn't talk about my mother much. The subject came up only a handful of times between the time it happened and when I prepared to move for graduate school. I can't say one way or another if this was helpful or not, but it felt like a taboo topic in our house. I shied away from bringing it up for fear of hurting my dad by bringing up difficult memories. When I was 18 I contacted as many people who knew her as I could to try and get a sense of who she was. It wasn't until last year that my dad and I actually talked about her. When I asked about why we hadn't, his response was that it just never came up. I don't feel particularly bad about not talking about her, but I may be an outlier.

My mom died twenty years ago this June, but my dad was able to make my life feel completely normal. He was always active and engaged, caring and compassionate, and made sure that I had everything I needed. It's great that you have a strong family around you to help and I know that with their help you will be a wonderful parent.

Please do not hesitate to memail me if you have any questions at all or would like to talk.
posted by holmesian at 8:39 AM on February 25, 2017 [27 favorites]

So sorry you are going through this. My dad died suddenly when I was nine, leaving me and my seven year old brother with my mom. She never remarried and passed away herself twenty-five years later. My sibling and I grew up happy, healthy, and well-adjusted, so it can be done.

That said, the single most important thing I can say is: take care of yourself. Take steps to make sure your emotional needs get met, even if it means paying a professional to listen to you. Let people help you and your kid. Don't let yourself get exhausted to the point that you take it out on him. When I look back at my relationship with my mom now, as an adult, I can see how many of our issues stemmed from the fact that she didn't have much outside support, and just needed another adult to talk to, or even just a break.
posted by rpfields at 9:04 AM on February 25, 2017 [8 favorites]

Best answer: So sorry. My dad also died suddenly as a child and I agree with rpfields that it is important to get support for yourself. My mother developed depression which is very common in single mothers and I think some of the struggle would have been better if she had gotten help. Also, she latched onto me as a surrogate spouse. Don't do that. She didn't mean to. I really wanted her to develop outside interests and relationships. I told her it was okay to remarry but she didn't. If your kid ever says things like that consider the possibility that they need a little space.

Also be sure your child has access to support. My mother didn't make me go to therapy but if I were in her shoes I would have made me. I wasn't ready to talk about it but that means I went like a couple decades without dealing properly and it colored some aspects of my future relationships. A professional isn't going to force the conversation but the child will probably benefit from being in their office. It is probably different when the child is very young.

Also, line up support for yourself so you can grieve. Pump milk or have formula on hand if you need it. Speaking as someone with personal and professional experience with loss, the more you can give into your grief now the "cleaner" it is likely to be. So think of who you can have available to watch kiddo so you can spend a few hours curled up in bed, etc. Even if you don't think you need it.
posted by crunchy potato at 10:24 AM on February 25, 2017 [6 favorites]

I am so sorry.

Considering the circumstances, it sounds like the most important thing will be taking care of yourself. Plenty of people are raised healthy and happy by single parents, but I think those parents tend to be healthy themselves.

I can recommend this book on healing developmental trauma as an indirect guide of what not to do. But I would also recommend seeking out resources to help you deal with your own grief.

Again, I'm so sorry. I know this is probably overwhelming. You can get through it, and your child can grow up healthy and happy.
posted by schadenfrau at 10:25 AM on February 25, 2017 [1 favorite]

My father died when I was 7. Here's what I wish had happened:

-- I wish I had some therapy to help me grieve. There was no one in my life that could focus just on me and my feelings. I mostly felt that I needed to swallow my grief and confusion so as not to upset my mother.

-- I wish that I had people in my life (beyond my mother and her family) that knew my father. We moved right after he died to live near my mother's parents. There was no one to help me learn who he was as I grew older. My mother, because of her own mental health challenges, has never been a reliable reporter of reality so I wasn't able to trust any stories from her.

-- I wish that I had the opportunity to know more kids who had lost a parent and structure to share our feelings. I think these days there are camps for that.

-- I wish my mother had gotten support to help her with her grief so that I could have trusted that she wasn't going to fall apart.

I'm so sorry you are going through this. I send you much love and strength.
posted by mcduff at 12:17 PM on February 25, 2017 [1 favorite]

I'm so sorry you have to face these extreme challenges.

I lost my father at 13, and I 100% concur with mcduff.

Things I can add...

Take lots of photos with baby and Dad. I have no photos of myself with my father and it hurts.

Talk about him to your child. Talk lovingly. Promote him as a someone who would have cherished your child as much as you do.

If you remarry, ensure than whenever Dad comes up in conversation, the step-father concurs with your appreciation of your baby's father.
posted by Thella at 12:49 PM on February 25, 2017 [2 favorites]

Yes, even though your husband is sick and doesn't look "like himself", it's important to have some photos where he is showing his love of his son, so don't be shy about taking some photos, even if that means specifically setting up a photo shoot in the hospital.
posted by aimedwander at 1:19 PM on February 25, 2017

I'm so sorry you're going through this. I don't have any direct experience of this myself, but one of my close friends growing up had lost her dad when she was very young (I think 2 or 3 years old). She didn't have specific memories of him, but their house had lots of pictures of him holding her, playing with her, etc. which I'm sure brought her comfort. Her mom used to talk about her dad quite naturally, as though he'd gone on a long business trip -- it was quite a while before I even realized he had passed away. So her dad was still a presence in her life, to the point where she got pissed off when a teacher referred to her stepfather as her dad.

Her dad had also made a set of videos for her to watch at milestones in her life, which was absolutely genius, but when she got married recently we had to hunt down a VHS player from a third friend's parents' attic in order for her to watch it. So if you / your husband go that route, use a technology that's not going to be obsolete in 30 years? Letters?
posted by basalganglia at 2:59 PM on February 25, 2017 [2 favorites]

Best answer: I'm sorry you're going through this. My father died when I was very young and I agree with the replies above regarding taking care of your mental health and stress. My childhood was tough mostly because we were poor (loss of a breadwinner) and my mother's depression and stress. Because I was so young when he died, not having a father was normal to me. It would have been a much more traumatic loss if I had any memory of him.
posted by lamp at 6:49 PM on February 25, 2017 [2 favorites]

Best answer: There's a lot of wisdom here already, and I think you're a good mom to be asking this. Honestly, my mother mostly handled the death of my father (when I was 8 and my sister, 13) very poorly. Here are things I wish she'd done better:
  • Sent my sister & I to therapy, something I didn't do until I was in my late 20s. Just having someone to talk to who was there just for me would have been incredibly helpful.
  • Talked about my father, and let us talk about him, in a way that was positive. Discussions of him were mostly centered on how much she missed him--and still are. Bringing him up would suck the air from the room; my sister learned not to. I've never really figured out a healthy way to talk about it with them, but I try to talk about him more now with my own family, and I can't tell you how good that feels. The sense of taboo around discussing him was great. A relative once told me that my father would have been proud of me and I burst into tears.
  • Maintained relationships with his family, which largely faded after his death. I had the feeling my mother was relieved to be rid of some of those relatives, honestly, which was very isolating.
  • Ditto on the parentification stuff. She heavily relied on my sister and I as companions, and developed pretty severe jealousy when we were teens and started dating. Holy hell, do I wish she had tried to meet someone else.
  • Taken better care of her own mental health. Her instability was very frightening for both my sister and I and remains pretty scary to this day.
My general sense is that we survived those years, but definitely didn't thrive, and that leaves a mark. We're both successful, educated adults with happy families of our own now, but it's taken a lot of work. Basically I had to learn to parent myself as an adult and I wish someone could have been there to take care of me when I was, you know, an actual kid.
posted by PhoBWanKenobi at 10:38 PM on February 25, 2017 [5 favorites]

Oh, and specifically, for ways to talk about it: keep alive traditions that your husband enjoys at the holidays. Point out--casually--things about your child that remind you of dad. Tell your child at important milestones that dad would be proud. Share stories of things you did together, and stories dad told from before the time you knew each other. Don't focus on the loss of him. Focus on his life, and your child's life, and their points of intersection.
posted by PhoBWanKenobi at 10:49 PM on February 25, 2017

Here's the worst thing my single parent did in the years after death of the other parent: used me as a confidant or interlocutor for adult problems like dating, money, problems with grad school advisor. There was no one else to talk to, but I didn't need to hear that stuff.
posted by thelonius at 12:19 PM on February 26, 2017 [2 favorites]

Best answer: So I lost my dad when I was a toddler. I can't say I've never had any problems as a result of it - although it can be hard to parse - but all in all, I'm fairly well-adjusted. I have stable relationships and a good job; I did well in school and stayed out of trouble; I get along with my family.

It can be hard to extrapolate from my situation on to yours, and frankly I remember nothing of the circumstances surrounding my dad's death. But here are some things that helped:

-My mom had a lot of help. My grandparents were around a lot; I have older half-siblings - who were actually my dad's kids - who helped her a lot. She maintained her relationships with her friends and our extended family, including my father's family (although his family had some issues that had nothing to do with his death so I'm not close to them today, with the exception of my siblings). We were not isolated.

-Unlike a lot of responses here, it was very much *not* taboo in my family to talk about my dad. My mom and my siblings and my grandparents and pretty much everyone else told stories about him. People talked about ways in which my interests converged with his, even though I didn't grow up with him. There were never any awkward silences when he was mentioned.

-I don't know how my mom did this, but I think she tried really hard to shield me from her own negative feelings. I'm sure they were there, and they did creep out very slightly from time to time. She didn't get all woe-is-me about the situation when I was around, she didn't burden me with adult problems. Things felt surprisingly normal; I don't think I realized until I was an adult how tough it must have been for her to maintain this.

-I did go to a child therapist a little while after he died, but I don't remember this very much and I have no idea whether it helped me or not.

Two things here really jump out at me: 1) Make sure you have a support network of adult friends and family that you can turn for emotional and logistical support, and 2) Don't make your child's father a taboo subject.
posted by breakin' the law at 12:33 PM on February 26, 2017 [5 favorites]

I think you've gotten a good amount from people who lost parents (I lost my father when I was 4 1/2, and my brother was 2 months old). A strong family network and super effort on the part of my mother made the most of a tough situation. Being from a military family meant that eventual death of my father could be part of our lives. Forethought like you are intending was part of the plan. From my own mom, via StoryWorth:

Q: What do you consider one of your greatest achievements in life?

A: I think my greatest achievement, like many parents, is my children. I know I wasn't mom of the year but I certainly was a good parent because you and Neil have turned out to be good, responsible people and loving children. You were good kids too-trying at times but that's kids. I think any parents that have raised kids should consider that their greatest, and certainly their most important achievement was raising their children.

I think it's a good marker of how things turned out- I agree with her assessment.

You are asking the right questions and laying the right groundwork. I'm sorry about your husband. You're doing great.
posted by dorkfishgirl at 5:18 PM on February 26, 2017

My brother died at age 40 leaving his widow with three small children. 15 years later they are doing well. About the same time he died, my SIL's friend had her husband take off with another woman. She told me, "At least my children know that their father was a good man who loved me and loved them and would never have chosen to leave them."

I think creating a sense of connection and love is a powerful gift. My brother's youngest would get very offended when people suggested that she hadn't lost anything because she was too young to remember - her relationship with her father mattered to her. Picture of him with baby, stories of how happy he was to find out you were pregnant or when baby was born, little comment about he is like his father or how surprised (and pleased) his father would be about ways they are different. I really appreciate that their mother has kept very close to our side of the family - I know it is an effort sometime but I think there has been lot of value to having grandparents, aunts and uncles and cousins who love them and who also knew and loved their father (and can tell stories about him when he was their age.)

I think having something that belong to his father might be very meaningful. Maybe your husband can pick out a few (small) things to give to the child at different times and write a little note to go with it. Different times so that it is not only age appropriate but the child can have it and hold it but also so that if it gets damaged or lost there will be others. Maybe stuffed animal or toy for now, a book for starting school and some personal items (tie tack, pocket knife, paperweight etc) for later. I know I got my grandmother's am/fm radio when she died - totally not anything special but it meant a lot to me just because I knew it had been hers.
posted by metahawk at 10:53 AM on February 27, 2017

Best answer: My mother passed away as a result of complications from childbirth. My father was approaching 40 with a little baby me to take care of all by himself. (I do not remember my mother at all.)

I'm 30 now, and by all accounts a well-adjusted adult, but for me, the big thing was, I wished we'd talked about her more.

From the little I've been able to glean, it got pretty heated between my mom's living relatives, who were quite abusive to my father, so he cut off contact with them. I don't blame him for doing that, but I do wish he'd talked about her instead. He did a little bit, when I was younger -- I remember him telling me about my mom's zodiac sign, and a few trips they'd taken, including their honeymoon.

He remarried when I was 9. My stepmother's great, but I didn't take it very well, and even though my stepmom is "mom" now -- Stepmom still feels pretty anxious about well.... being a stepmother. We're not super-close, and I don't hate her, but I do get tired of constantly reassuring her that what I wrote a a dumb tween in my diary is not how I feel now. Her constant insecurities are exhausting.

But anyway, after my father remarried, he just basically stopped talking about my mother. I guess partially because it made my stepmother nervous, and partially because it was hard on him, but I wish I'd had more stories about her. What was her favorite color? Her favorite food? Was she allergic to anything? Do I have her eyes? Her laugh?

So please, take care of yourself in the short term, but in the longer term, please don't stop talking about him to your son. Even if you remarry, acknowledge and celebrate all of those people, past and present, that are helping to make your son a whole person. I think I would have been a lot less depressed and anxious as a teenager and college student if I'd felt like I could have talked to my parents. I felt that, if I couldn't talk about mom, then what else could I talk to them about?

My dad's need to close that side of himself off ultimately hurt me when I was older and really wanted my mom--at least, stories about my mom as a person. I wanted to see all my parental figures as people, even the one who wasn't alive anymore. I tended to romanticize my mother as a teen, too, because I didn't know her, but I think feeling like I could have talked about her would have helped with that.

The year with the birthday where I officially lived longer than she did was especially rough, though.
posted by PearlRose at 12:36 PM on February 27, 2017 [1 favorite]

Also, her voice. I apparently sound just like my mother, but I don't know, because I've never heard her voice. So, if you can, take lots of pictures with your son and his dad, but also, record some video of him reading a favorite story, playing a song, something. It'll be nice for your son to have when he's older and starts asking some of those questions.
posted by PearlRose at 12:42 PM on February 27, 2017 [4 favorites]

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