The Unique Hell Of Losing A Parent When Your Kids Are Small

by Kimberly Mayer
A mother holding and hugging her baby at a funeral
RichLegg / iStock

When my mother died, I remember telling sympathetic friends, “We’re all going to go through this. I just happen to be the first one.”

Instantly, I became the only member I knew in a club I wanted no part of: Moms (and Dads) of Small Children Who Have Lost a Parent. My girls were 4 and 9 months old, so I more than qualified. It was lonely, isolating. I’m not minimizing the experience of others, but living through her death and the aftermath with little ones to care for was its own kind of hell. A hell no one understands if they aren’t a member. The same way people without kids just don’t get what it’s like to have kids until, well, they have kids.

By today’s standards my mom was young: 67. Do the quick math, and you’ll see that losing a parent at this stage in my life means their death is untimely and likely tragic. I had three weeks to watch her die — during the holidays. Through no fault of their own, my kids still had a schedule that needed to be met, without fail, plus the traditional merriment that Christmas brings.

There were cookies to make and gifts to wrap. There were holiday concerts and Santa visits. Putting their lives on hold was not an option, and since I am their primary source of affection, attention, comfort, and safety, I had no choice but to continue the same level of giving to which they were accustomed.

Frankly, I wanted it that way. Partially, because in the back of my mind, if I was staying positive, it meant that my mom would miraculously turn around and come home, and partially because as moms, whether we like it or not, we set the tone of our homes. If I’m upset, they are upset. If I panic, they panic. If I’m absent, they are lost. I wanted them to worry only about whether Santa would come. As taxing as it was, I put on my brave face and did what I had to do at home. Then I put on my brave face and did what I had to do at the hospital, and they were none the wiser.

But as much as my needs were squeezed out of the equation those three weeks, it was in the aftermath of her death that I quickly learned they would not be added back in. If there is one absolute truth, it is that death and grief and small children do not mix. Life as I knew it changed forever, but my circumstances and responsibilities did not. I was waist-deep in naps, meal prep, butt-wiping, art projects, the flu, paying bills, loads of laundry. If there was little space left for me by the end of the day before, it had completely dried up now that I was writing dozens of thank-you notes, sorting through beneficiary paperwork, cleaning out my mom’s house, and closing the doors of her life.

People would ask if I was okay, and I’d always say, “I have to be. There is no other choice.” It was the truth. Life was going on. The tone was being set. My kids weren’t trying to screw me out of the grieving process. They were just kids whose innocence I desperately tried to protect.

What I didn’t elaborate on when asked if I was okay was how brutal the reality of her death was because I had kids. There wasn’t a soul I knew who was in the club and would understand. People often said, “Hopefully your children will be a positive diversion.” Of course they were. My girls brought me joy that was and still is infinitely deep. The only thing that has changed is my growing appreciation for them. I cherish their little arms around my neck and savor every snuggle and belly laugh.

The same way my mom did.

My mom drove me batshit crazy as my parent (you know, like we are doing to our kids), but as a grandma, she amazed me. She would play — on the floor — with my kids for hours without needing a coffee break. She would read the same story 167 times with the same enthusiasm because she got a kick out of them saying, “Again!”

She genuinely laughed at every incomprehensible joke they told. If they were too young to understand, she would still mail the Valentine’s Day card. She would ship boxes of clothes to me that were two sizes too big because she knew I’d be caught off-guard by their growth spurts. If she stayed at our house, she would ask them to wake her up in the morning. She would hang on every coo, laugh, and noise they would make. She used her phone to record my oldest crying as a newborn because she wanted to hear her when she went home.

She did all of this because they brought her so much joy.

Now when I get to see my kids walk for the first time or lose a first tooth or make up a silly song or say a new word that sounds like “fuck” or wear the sunglasses she bought, I reach for my phone to send her a picture or text or FaceTime. And I can’t. And the pain of her not seeing these things nearly cancels out the “positive diversion” of watching my kids grow.

During such happy moments, I am reminded of her absence from them. Even in forgettable moments, I’m reminded. They pop up everywhere I turn. I find myself saving useless baby toys only because she bought them, I quietly say “no” every time my phone rings and my daughter asks if it’s Grammie calling, I cry when my oldest puts a hole in a pair of pants Mom had picked out for her. I nearly died myself when I reached in the closet and pulled out the last box of too-big clothes.

As time goes on, the reminders just stack up and up and up.

Which is why I cringe when people say, “Time will heal your pain.” Time makes pain worse. Time is the cruel reminder of how many things my mom is missing. Time keeps a calendar of all the things she has yet to miss. The list gets longer every day.

No, time does the opposite of heal. Healing implies recovery, but my wound festers. Healing implies an end to the grief, but there is no “other side” from which to emerge. Ironically, there is no time to try to fix the part of me that is permanently broken.

Instead, intense waves of grief periodically stop me in my tracks, take my breath away and force me to sit down and say to myself, “Holy shit, that happened.” Those waves will crash in the rest of my life, and if time is able to do anything for me, it will give me longer stretches between each one.

One day I came across some black and white photos of my mom as a little girl. I flipped through and couldn’t stop sobbing. My oldest walked in and asked why I was crying.

“I’m looking at pictures of Grammie.”

After a long pause she said, “I miss her.”

I looked up at her. “Me too.”

In that moment, I realized this wasn’t just my pain. My mother’s death became part of my children’s life story too. All of the effort I made to shield them from what was happening was futile once she was gone. It’s a young age to have to weave that reality into their little consciousness, but it’s a part of life completely out of my control. I don’t get to choose when they learn this.

As I looked at those pictures of a little girl who was about the same age as the little girl standing before me, I felt the weight of not just my own mortality but my daughter’s as well. The thought of my daughters knowing the hell I had been through put a pit in my stomach, but I selfishly begged God to take me first. The alternative I certainly wouldn’t survive. I know my mom well enough to know she prayed for that as well, and she’d consider herself lucky to have gotten her wish.

Since my mom’s death, two of my friends have joined me in this wretched club. My heart breaks for the months ahead for them. I have no good coping advice. All I can do is look at my kids, my husband, and myself, and remember we are still in the land of the living. A piece of me died that will never come back, but I water what is still alive. I lean into the sunshine my children radiate. I may have to remember to do this exercise every day, but my mom would agree that my children deserve the best of what is left of me.