Parenting is hard. Providing for the physical and emotional needs of a child is a big responsibility even when shared. Most parents would agree that the prospect of doing it alone is a scary one. Even for those single parents who are surrounded by a village of loving friends, family members, and care providers, raising children without the day-to-day support of a spouse, partner, or significant other can be overwhelming. And when the circumstances that have made you a single parent include the loss of your loved one to suicide, the task can feel impossible.
On top of performing the daily to-do list of taming tantrums, helping with homework, and driving to and fro, a newly-single parent in these circumstances is faced with providing for the emotional needs of their children as they deal with the loss of a parent. Furthermore, a parent must ensure their own physical and mental well-being during this traumatic and trying time.
Unfortunately, many mothers and fathers have become single parents as a result of losing a partner to suicide. As sad as the situation undoubtedly is for everyone involved, knowing there are other parents who have successfully navigated their way through a similar loss can provide some comfort and, perhaps more importantly, guidance for other parents to follow.
STEP ONE: LET GO OF THE GUILT
Suicide is different than other losses. The loved ones of people who took their own lives experience the same range of emotions as anyone dealing with the loss of a loved one, including anger, sadness, fear, and anxiety. But “survivors of suicide” also deal with guilt. In many cases, the burden of responsibility can be so intense that it interferes with the natural grief process.
While loved ones do not typically assume responsibility for a loved one’s death due to a physical ailment, even acquaintances of those who take their own lives assign themselves some blame for this kind of death. They wonder if they should have done more to help their loved one and, in order to avoid assigning responsibility to the deceased, they take it on themselves.
In order to heal from this loss, survivors must remember the death of their loved one is not their fault. After all, suicide is almost always the product of a mental illness or related condition such as depression, substance abuse and addiction, or a history of trauma or abuse. And while mental illness is still accompanied by a stigma, it is a chronic disease not unlike cancer or diabetes.
STEP TWO: FOCUS ON YOUR CHILDREN
As a parent, watching your child suffer through the loss of a loved one is difficult. Children are unaccustomed to loss and, while their feelings will come naturally, it is up to the adults in their lives to teach them healthy coping mechanisms.
When a child experiences the sudden death of a loved one, they go through what’s known as traumatic grieving in which they experience conflicting emotions. A child can have difficulty reconciling feelings of sadness and pain with those of anger or betrayal. Sometimes, this leads to the child ignoring their emotions altogether, a practice that can negatively impact their own emotional health.
By encouraging your child to express their feelings and share positive memories, you can also help them come to terms with how their parent died. You will be helping them cope with their loss in the short term and protecting their long-term emotional health. Research shows that children who lose a parent to suicide are at a higher risk for psychiatric disorders and more likely to die of suicide themselves, so it’s important for parents to take charge of their children’s mental wellness.
However, children are also extremely resilient. Providing a caring environment where children are comfortable expressing themselves can help them overcome the trauma of losing a parent to suicide. Paying close attention to your children during this time can also allow you to identify any changes in behavior or worrisome psychiatric symptoms early.
STEP THREE: TAKE CARE OF YOURSELF
One of the best ways to teach your kids healthy coping mechanisms is to model them yourself, but parenting while grieving is tough, to say the least. Many parents struggle to find the support they need to adjust to the immediate and ongoing responsibilities of solo parenting and, as a result, are left feeling alone and misunderstood.
According to a study by the New York Life Association, parents with children still living at home whose partner has died within the last 10 years have experienced an array of traumatic emotions:
- have thought about their deceased loved one every day.
- believe the loss is the most difficult event they have ever endured.
- found it complicated to differentiate between typical, appropriate behavior and grief-related behavior in their children.
- don’t feel they have adequate resources to help their child or children cope with the loss of their parent.
- wish they had more resources to help them understand and endure their own grief.
Parents need a place to express their emotions freely as much as their children do, so it’s important to make time and space for yourself to experience the grief process. Spending time with family and friends sharing memories and talking about your feelings can also help you come to terms with your loss.
STEP FOUR: GET HELP
Part of taking care of yourself and your children may mean pursuing help outside of your family and friends. Professional support in the form of counseling is available for adults and children dealing with the loss of a partner or parent. For adults, counseling sessions can take place with a psychologist or peer-based support group. For children, intervention may take the form of traditional counseling, art classes, or play therapy.
It is important to acknowledge that grief is a lifelong process. You and your children will likely never “get over” your loss but, with the continued support of friends, family members, and professional counseling, you can move on.
STEP FIVE: FIND JOY
For single parents who have lost their spouse, even the happiest times in your child’s life can be difficult. Oftentimes, scoring soccer goals, acing report cards, or celebrating birthdays are a painful reminder of the parent who is no longer there to share high fives, give hugs, and light candles. While these feelings of grief will eventually fade, you may need to consciously practice finding joy in the beginning.
For most parents, embellishment is nothing new. As it turns out, this skill of “faking it until you make it” can actually help you (and your children) achieve happiness in the long run. By giving yourself permission to be happy again after your loss by doing things you love or smiling in spite of your sadness, you are allowing yourself to begin moving on. Your children will follow your lead, giving themselves permission to feel good again, too.
Finally, give yourself grace. Some days will be more difficult than others, and it will take time to get used to the practical and emotional struggles that come with single parenting after losing a partner to suicide. By creating a caring environment for both you and your children, surrounded by people who care about you and your well-being, you can — and will — make it through this difficult time.