Not much changes in twenty-five years when you are faced with an untimely death of a spouse and forced to raise your children as an only parent. Sheryl Sandberg has recently shared with the media the pain of being an only parent, caring for her children who suddenly lost their father and facing the judgments of society that many of us unfortunately have experienced first-hand a long time ago.
Being the one and only parent following the death of a spouse or life partner implies a different meaning of single parenting. Over the years following the loss of my husband, friends and acquaintances often compared my situation of single parenting to those of their peers who have been divorced or have chosen to have a child alone. No doubt, there are characteristics of single parenting that may over lap with death, anticipatory loss and divorce.
As a widowed spouse, trying to navigate your new life since the loss while attending to children’s needs, regardless of their age, becomes a priority. You are suddenly forced to wear several hats, many of which have come unexpectedly without a lesson — resulting in being ill-prepared. You have now become Mom, Dad, sole provider and griever with your children. They look to you for all the answers, support and fulfillment at a time when you can barely get out of bed, put a meal on the table or function as you once did.
Having sole responsibility of your children both emotionally and financially while you are grief-stricken tests your coping skills. Just when you feel that you need to crawl up in a hole and hide from your own new life, someone is pulling on you for his or her individual needs. Grief education suggests grievers will experience many different phases though their personal grief journey. While you can prepare yourself for the ups and downs of the journey, it is difficult to control the emotions of your children forcing you to learn how to handle their grief as well.
As the sole parent, you are determining all the necessities for your children – therefore being responsible for making all the decisions. With your judgment and reasoning in a perplexed state, you doubt your parenting skills. You question every time you make a decision regarding the children. Am I hovering too much? Are they okay? Do they have enough activities – maybe too many? Are we spending enough family time together? Do they have a balance of male/female influence? Am I talking about the parent they lost enough? Am I home enough? How do I make our sad home happy? What will we do for the holidays? Will we have enough money for summer camp? Are my kids grieving the loss? There are no clear-cut answers for these questions other than doing the best you can at the time. Soliciting advice from another widow, family member or friend can provide clarity to these agonizing questions. When Rod suddenly passed away leaving our 2-year-old daughter to grow up with me as the “one and only parent,” I literally lost sleep for a year wondering who would walk her down the aisle at her wedding. In hindsight I laugh at myself, as there were much bigger challenges ahead of us – after all she was only two. The truth is our emotions take over and we are left with self-doubt, trying our best to tackle life milestones and every-day life.
Raising children as a single parent is typically viewed by society as a choice or as a result of divorce. For the surviving parent of an untimely death, being forced into the role of mom and dad presents additional unplanned hardships. The recently widowed parent feels as an outsider while attending a school function, being a spectator on a sports field, or participating in extra-curricular activities, as society is ill-prepared to handle a substantial loss. Others do not know how to handle the situation so the best approach for them is to avoid you, which pours salt into an already open wound.
While hard to imagine, with each loss there are always gifts that present themselves along the way. Listening to Sheryl Sandberg’s interviews over the last month, I wanted to hug her and tell her that all will be okay but she is so new to the journey it would be impossible for her to see what is lurking around the corners of hope and healing. For me, the loss of Rod forced me to raise Gretchen in her formative years alone. When mom said no, there was no dad to run to so mom had the final word. And while I was overwhelmed with parenting decisions, I was empowered to make choices and be proud of my parenting skills. We bonded in a way that is indescribable – an amazing bond that is still felt today by anyone around us. When I remarried, my husband often teased (and still does) that the umbilical cord was never cut at birth – I honestly believe Rod’s death created that remarkable connection. While I am extremely sad for his loss and him not being with us on a daily basis, I thank him for allowing me to put on his shoes to do the best I could raising Gretchen.
My words of wisdom for being the one and only parent is to be patient, believe in your abilities and take each day’s challenges ONE DAY AT A TIME.
Rachel Kodanaz is an author, speaker and consultant who provides encouragement to those who are suffering a loss or setback. She is the author of Living with Loss, One Day at a Time, available at www.rachelkodanaz.com or www.amazon.com.