My Beloved Husband—My Kids' Amazing Dad—Died, And We Have To Talk About It
A well-known author and blogger recently posted on Instagram a message suggesting that parents shouldn’t show emotion in front of their kids—or something similar to that idea. The post was dragged by everybody and quickly deleted so I can’t share the exact message or wording. Either way, the post got me thinking, because I don’t show emotions in front of my kids. I can’t.
I can’t cry in front of my kids. The truth is, I have a lot of trouble crying or showing hard emotions in front of anyone, but particularly in front of my kids. The tears dry up the moment they stumble into my room in the morning or get in the car after school. A switch flips, and instantly the tears are reabsorbed. My mom-smile turns on. My face no doubt retains the markers of grief—splotchy skin and swollen eyes—but the emotion has drained away. I can’t help it.
When my husband first got sick, and when we learned his cancer was terminal, the kids didn’t know his odds of survival were viciously bleak. They knew only that he was sick. But in their world, at the time, if you get sick, you then get better. We, my husband and I, didn’t tell them that sometimes people don’t get better. We didn’t really admit that to ourselves either. As a result, when the stress of illness and the weight of anticipatory grief became too much, I cried alone—when I went for a run, when I got out of the house for a solo errand, when I stayed up much later than I needed to in order to Google that one more thing that would maybe be the thing that saved us—to protect my kids from the truth.
Then, the worst happened and I had to tell my kids that sometimes people don’t get better. Then, that the doctors had given up hope. And finally, I had to tell my kids that their dad died. There is nothing left to protect them from. They have learned that life can be unfair and that bad things do happen. And still, I can’t cry in front of my kids.
It’s been a few years since those days and the earliest, darkest days of grief that followed his death. The worst of my grief days are more or less behind me—but grief is insidious and invasive. It tends to crash back in waves that are often unpredictable, both in depth and timing.
On those days, just as before, the emotion will drain from my body the moment my kids stumble into my room half awake or in the seconds before they climb into the car at school pick up.
The difference is now: I don’t protect them from my grief. I tell them. I let them know today is a hard day for me, even though there are no tears and my emotions have burrowed back to where they came from before they have had a chance to see them. I make an effort to let them know when grief has overwhelmed me.
Not because I want them to fix my feelings, and not because I want them to take care of me. It is not their job to hold me up and I don’t say more than what’s appropriate for a child. But because I know sometimes their grief catches them by surprise and overwhelms them, too, and they need to know that’s okay.
I don’t want them to think that my grief is somehow gone, so theirs should be, too, and if it’s not, then they’re failing. I don’t want them to think that if they don’t see their mom crying, then crying is somehow wrong. I want them to know that hard days are normal. Hard days are not weak days or days you’ve somehow failed.
If they don’t see me cry, they may begin to believe my grief never overwhelms me anymore. They might come to the conclusion that if they are still experiencing hard days, they are somehow not “strong” or whatever arbitrary word is serving as a benchmark for their grief. Or worse, they may begin to believe they shouldn’t let me see their hard days, because I wouldn’t understand or because I’d be disappointed in them. So I tell them: today is a grief day.
Now that I understand my grief better, I know sometimes if I can’t cry, if that sadness has burrowed into a place I can’t tap into, I’ll be more irritated than usual or I’ll take on more than I can handle and become overwhelmed. When that happens, I make sure to tell my kids the root cause of my bad mood is grief. Again not because I want them to support me, but because I want to model techniques to deal with grief in real time.
I’m sure there’s a psychological explanation for why my tears turn off. At some point along the way, maybe I learned to cope with hard things by pretending to others that they weren’t hard at all. Maybe even though intellectually I know it’s okay to let my kids see me cry, emotionally I can’t help but try to shield them from the things that hurt. Whatever the reason, I make it a point to be honest with my kids about my emotions, because I want them to be honest, with me and with themselves, about their own. It’s how they will learn empathy for others and find grace for themselves. At least that’s my hope.
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