Parenting with Grief: A Parent’s Perspective

Jenny Zilmer, māmā to Nora and Lumi, shares some of the challenges she and her husband have faced and the lessons they’ve learned while parenting with grief.

Parenting is all-consuming. And so is grief. It’s incredibly tough when the two have to co-exist.

We desperately want the best for our tamariki / children and mātātahi / young people. But when we’re experiencing grief or trauma, it’s difficult – even impossible – to give them the best of ourselves. If your tamariki / children are also grieving, they’ll likely have higher emotional and physical needs at this time as well.

Jenny Zilmer, māmā to Nora and Lumi,shares some of the challenges she and her husband have faced and the lessons they’ve learned while parenting with grief.

In the hours following our baby’s death, the thought dominating our minds was that we had to get home to our living child, then three years old. We were desperate to shield her from it all: from the pain, confusion, and chaos it had brought into her safe, reliable world. We wanted to shower her with all the love and care we could muster – and going forward, to be there and present for every need.

We didn’t know then how complex that process would be: how demanding, and in fact impossible our parenting goals were.

If you’ve lost a loved one and have children, you may well have heard the words ‘thank goodness you have someone to keep living for.’ We’ve had this said to us – and we agree with it wholeheartedly. We realised then, as we do now, how lucky we are to have a child who needs us. And yes, children are brilliant at helping us to recognise that life goes on; they pull us forwards and force us to engage with life, whether we like it or not. The day after our daughter died, we got up, did laundry and made our older child breakfast. We kept her routine consistent. It gave us all comfort and still does, one year on.

Every thought we had, every action we took, felt as though it was from her perspective. We fixated on what she was thinking, how she was feeling and what she needed. It helped to distract from the pain and confusion of our own experience.

But while having children to raise through grief can be lifesaving, it’s also exhausting and terrifying. Overwhelming, and at times excruciating. There is no such thing as having a day where it feels too hard to get out of bed. There’s limited (or no) time and space to be with your own thoughts. There can be feelings of resentment towards your living child just for being there and needing you.

As time has gone on and we have settled into a weird kind of new ‘normal’ without our baby, our own grief and trauma is catching up with us. We are learning that just running on our child’s needs is not sustainable. To give her the best possible future, we need to take care of ourselves as well.

The love we feel for our living daughter is at times desperate and anxious. Spending time with her can be challenging, because her needs and emotions (as with any four-year-old – and even more so a grieving one) are intense and unpredictable. At the same time, we find it awfully hard when she’s at kindy, because the separation from her feels so unnerving.

We live in a constant state of worry that the effects of the grief and trauma she’s experienced are having a negative impact on her. We attempt to analyse every mood swing, imaginary friend, and dream she’s had – always looking for insights into her mental wellbeing.

Staying grounded in the face of her emotional arcs is near impossible. Every morning, I wake up and promise myself that I’m going to do better for her: to dig a little deeper and find the patience and calm she needs from the adults in her life. Almost every day, I go to bed feeling that I’ve failed her – frustrated and angry with myself, and enormously guilty. She senses my struggle and sometimes actively avoids spending time with me. My guilt grows, and we find ourselves easily becoming trapped in this cycle.

As a bereaved parent, my own emotions are unpredictable and often extreme. Making sure I’m present for my daughter in all the ways she needs, and at the exact – often inopportune – moments her needs arise seems near impossible. Sometimes I over-compensate, trying to silence my guilt by piling on an overload of affection and attention, which she often rejects. Being consistent, calm and mindful parent doesn’t feel achievable when we’re not any of those things for ourselves.

We are working at it, day by day. The process involves a lot of trial and error, and there’s a long way to go. Here are some of the things that are helping to make it feel more manageable for us:

  • Realising that our struggles with parenting while grieving are normal and to be expected.
  • Making peace with the fact that our daughter has lost a sibling, and that she is the child of bereaved parents. That’s a part of her life now. While we can soften the blow for her, we can’t protect her from everything we’ve experienced as a family, and the ways our loss continues to impact us.
  • Being kinder to ourselves, and lowering our own expectations of what parenting should look like in this period of our lives.
  • Being clear about our priorities. When we feel we’re in survival mode in terms of our own mental health, we revert to a mental checklist of basics. We make sure she’s had plenty of hugs; is fed, clean, and has enough clothes that fit.
  • Structuring our time. Instead of letting our days become a confusing tangle of emotions, we try to set aside time to be mindfully present with our living daughter. In the same way, we carve out time dedicated to our younger daughter – our memories and our grief. With both, we’re aiming for quality over quantity.

At Kenzie’s Gift, we have research-backed, professionally made support kits that provide helpful information and insights for mātua / parents and caregivers and other whānau members who are preparing for the death of a taitamaiti / child. Order your hard copy


Written by Jenny Zilmer