As working parents of two children under four, it takes every ounce of energy we have to make it through a normal week. Like most families, we struggle to get out the door in the morning. We battle rush hour to make daycare pickup on time. Despite best efforts, our bedtime routine grows longer by the day. It’s tough to remember the last time my husband and I had even a few minutes to discuss anything beyond day-to-day logistics.
This week was not normal. My father-in-law died quickly and unexpectedly on Monday morning, less than one week after we celebrated his birthday. He lived one hour away from us with my mother-in-law.
His passing is not the first loss we’ve faced together. I lost my dad two months after we married. There have also been aunts and a grandmother over our 11-year relationship. They all hurt and brought a grief journey. But in looking back, those journeys felt more manageable. This one feels very different and exponentially more complicated because we are trying to grieve while juggling young kids – and it feels impossible and loaded with guilt.
When we got the early morning emergency call, we shook off our typical zombie-like state and tried to remain calm while awaiting my mom’s arrival to take the kids. We knew the dreaded outcome that awaited us as we gathered our things to run out the door. Our children were equally groggy and hysterical that we were leaving them behind without warning. We couldn’t bring ourselves to explain what had happened – there was no time. The common theme. We shouted that grandpa was sick, and hit the road.
I wasn’t sure when I’d see them again, and tried to swallow that guilt while focusing on being there for my husband.
Over the next few days, I attempted to split myself in half. I spent my daylight hours with my husband and his family and made the hour-long drive back home to soak up my kids at night. While their presence could have served as a potential distraction for the adults, we needed to discuss some difficult topics and thought that it might help maintain normalcy for them to see their friends at school. I felt guilty for leaving my husband’s side those days, but something about this unexpected loss underscored the fragility of life. I wanted to hug my son and daughter tight after an emotionally tough day. Each morning, the guilt pendulum swung their way as I dropped them off again.
The funeral served as a lovely memorial for my father-in-law, who had become like a dad to me following the loss of my own. As many “party” hosts know, it can be difficult to do much more than make rounds and cover the basic arrangements for guests so I still didn’t quite feel like I had the time to process what was happening.
I missed my husband and our usual routine. But, having been on the grief train before, I wouldn’t dare ask him to leave before he was ready. I also missed my father-in-law deeply.
As much as I liked seeing my kids’ faces at night, I still felt a need and desire to sit with my heavy feelings for longer than a minute and I couldn’t. I had two toddlers at my feet having tantrums because they couldn’t eat chocolate pudding for breakfast. Because Dad was gone for the better part of a week, they asked if they could stay up and sleep with me in our bed. While I should have used night time to be alone with my thoughts, my guilt kicked in and I let them stay with me. I also didn’t want to be alone. They’re young, but I tried my best to explain what was happening.
I found myself getting short with them. I certainly didn’t know where else to direct this energy and that made me feel guilty.
My mom was a godsend during this time. But, handling two kids solo at length is not for the faint of heart. Guilt.
Friends and neighbors offered their condolences along with offers of help, but I couldn’t bring myself to accept more than that. I thought to ask if someone might take the kids for even an hour or two so that I could take a short nap, do laundry or burn off some steam with a workout, but how could I possibly put that on someone else? Guilt.
My husband opted to stay back with his mom through the weekend, as he should have. There was a house full of other guests so I thought it might be best to stay with the kids at our house and visit one weekend day. I know that kids can be a blessing, but I also didn’t want to put messes and entertaining on my mother-in-law’s lap. While at home, I wanted to be fully present with my kids, but my mind was elsewhere. I wasn’t sleeping much, which exacerbated my feelings of frustration, sadness and overwhelm.
Thinking about the return to work also brings guilt – how does one possibly go back to everyday matters after something so traumatic and earth-shattering? How do we leave my mother-in-law in an empty house? As much as I like the predictability of a “normal” week in our house, this also will bring the typical busy-ness that leaves time for little else – including time for grief. This is a far cry from the time I had eight years ago when I used every non-working moment to sit with my dad’s death.
For now, the best “grief time” I can get is in the car. Sometimes it’s alone and other times it’s with the kids in tow. I leave the radio off and take in the beauty of the world around me. The first night my father-in-law passed, I really struggled to sleep and pictured a monarch fluttering up to Heaven. Now, I periodically see them on the road.
There is never a good time in life for tragedy to strike. We can never schedule loss or know how to properly handle such difficult situations that arise in parenthood. This is simply one of those rarely spoken elements of adulthood. If you’ve struggled to find the time to grieve as a parent of young kids and wrestled with the guilt to do so, I see you.
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