How Death of a Spouse Affects Our Relationships with Our Children
by Paula R.
We were surrounding his bed as he took his last breath. As I heard his heartbeat stop, I looked at my children and said, “He is gone.” I recall the tears, sobbing, and us making the required actions of calling the funeral home and family. But in the blur of the moment, I remember my son saying, “At least I got to have the best dad in the world for 21 years,” and my daughter saying, “Well I have had his bear hugs for 19 years so now Amelia (our daughter we lost) can have his hugs.” Their big, strong and loving daddy was gone. They saw him take his last breath. They were feeling the certainty of never having their dad in their life again. I am sure graduations, weddings, births and other life accomplishments passed before my precious children’s eyes as the truth that their dad would be missing all of it. They would never hear him say I love you, I am proud of you, I am glad you are mine or feel his bear hugs again. Sure, they know their dad loves them and is so very proud of them, but they will never again hear his words or see his pride or feel his presence.
Our children were raised with faith and in a loving home. Thankfully, that strong foundation enabled them to navigate their dad’s death without spiraling into negative behaviors that could derail them from having productive and positive lives. I am sorry for my sisters who have struggled with children making poor choices. But even though they are productive adults, they still struggle with the hole that the death of their dad left behind.
As a mom, I want to take their pain away. I cannot. Nor can I replace their dad. I cannot be mom and dad. I can only be a mom. And now, I am a single mom. Especially in those early days, weeks, months and years, I was absorbed in my own grief and unable to help them process their grief. And their grief was different from mine.
As I have emerged from the fog of exploring this world all alone, I realize that my relationships with my children have changed. My children were all in college when their dad died. They are now all married and parents themselves. As they became engaged, I noticed that they desired to spend holidays with their future in-laws. In my rational mind, I understood. The homes had a mom and dad who loved each other and celebrated holidays with traditions and joy. Our home lost all of those characteristics. I cannot give them an intact family where they have both of their parents. The holidays involve being with just me. And our family traditions have lost their magic because my love, their dad, is gone.
Not only has our family unit and heritage been destroyed, but the world as we know it has been destroyed. My sons have deployed and become fathers without their father. My daughter had no one to walk her down the aisle or dance with her at her wedding. The normal rites of passage for children were taken from mine and yours. We do not sit around discussing this loss, but it is always the white elephant in the room. I know and they know that their dad should be present for any and all of these life events. And all they have is me. A mom standing there alone as a big neon sign reminding them that their dad is gone…forever.
I have tried to remind my kids via letters, texts and conversations that their dad would be so proud of them. But I fear my words are hollow. Not because they are not true, but because he is not saying them. The rational mind knows their dad is proud of them. But the heart would love to hear his voice and feel his hug as he tells them.
We all lost our sense of security. My husband was stable, solid and handled everything calmly and rationally. Not only was he the major breadwinner, but he was the one everyone turned to for advice, help on a project, or strength when they felt weak. I was their cheerleader and nurturer.
Our established pattern of relating as a family has become muddled and sometimes confusing. My children once flourished in the security that dad would provide and mom would support. Now they worry about me more than they should. They worry about my health, happiness, finances, loneliness, and mental state. Things they never even thought of when their dad was alive. To help them not worry so much, I minimize my loneliness and health issues. I put on that fake smile and tell them I am fine. I encourage them to enjoy life, live where they desire, celebrate with their in-laws and not to worry about me. And they do. And they should. And it hurts. But, I do not want them to feel guilty or obligated. My husband died. I am a widow. I must learn how to live without my man.
As a mom, my job is to launch them and help them be productive members of society. In that process, I have to not let my loss inhibit them from attaining their goals. So, I spend holidays and birthdays (theirs and mine) alone. And I resist the urge to call them crying. When we can be together, I try to soak in all the joy! Celebrate that we are still standing after suffering such a big blow to our family. We are all learning how to function as a family unit again. There is no how-to book on this topic. But the bottom line is, I am the mom and they are the child. A mom is to nurture, support, cheer, and thrive for their children. I did not want to make them become the parent doing for me. They have lost enough.
Paula lost her college sweetheart after 25 years of marriage and three children. She strives to spread the love they shared with others.