Parenting When You've Lost a Parent

Medically reviewed by Karen Richardson Gill, MD, FAAP on May 12, 2016Written by Annamarya Scaccia on May 12, 2016
Parenting When You’ve Lost a Parent

When I learned that my father Massimo died, I exhaled. It wasn't from relief, per se. But I found myself bracing for that call ever since he went into the hospital over the summer. And for seven months, I would tense up anytime one of my sisters called me out of the blue. I always expected the worst.

In February, the worst happened. My father went in for surgery on his foot that morning. He had a nasty diabetic wound on his heel that wouldn’t heal. But his heart couldn't handle the anesthesia, and he had a heart attack. By 5:10 p.m., he was gone.

When my younger sister and I saw his lifeless body on that hospital bed, I broke down. Tears poured down my face for hours. My dad and I had a complicated and sometimes difficult relationship, but we were on the road to reconciliation. And now I would have to live with things left unsaid, with guilt, with only memories.

But what hurts more is that my 11-month-old son, my father's second grandson, won't have the chance to grow up with a grandfather who loved him deeply. And that grief has affected the way I parent.

This is what I experienced as a mom after losing a parent.

You'll think about death… a lot

I began to think often about my mortality after I gave birth to my son. Everything around me is a danger; every move is a risk. And every news story about a child or parent dying is a warning you must heed.

There's a certain fear of dying that comes with new parenthood that I didn’t expect. I already have issues with death, but becoming a mother has amplified those feelings. And my father's death has magnified them.

Fear is a normal reaction in grief. But it's how you approach that fear that becomes concerning. The anxiety I now feel over death and leaving my son behind is tremendous. I have a hard time reconciling the logical truth that death is inevitable and unpredictable with the emotional panic over my own demise.

But I try to ease that fear by celebrating my life with my partner and my son. I try to revel in every moment, good or bad, and to be as present as possible when my son needs me. It has allowed me to be a better, more attentive, and nurturing mother.

I know I can't change time or stop death. But I can control whether or not I let life pass me by.

Your support system will change

For many people, support systems can shatter when a parent dies. You may realize how your deceased parent was the backbone of your family. Your surviving parent may start to disappoint you in ways you never noticed before. You may even begin to put too much pressure on your loved ones to fill the void.

For others, their support system may get stronger. You may become closer to your siblings or surviving parent. You may reconnect with estranged family members. You may learn to open up to strangers with similar experiences.

I fortunately belong to that latter camp. But however you see your support system change, it's important for you to re-evaluate your relationships. Grief already drains you of energy, so don't let what energy you have left go to waste on people who aren't returning the gesture. If you focus your time on your child and loved ones rather than on toxic people, you may find yourself on a positive path toward healing.

You’ll want to change the way you communicate

My father and I weren't close, but I knew I could count on him to check in on my son and on me. And while I know he's gone, sometimes a part of me still expects it to be him when I get a Facebook messenger notification. A part of me expects him to call.

I was terrible at calling him or responding to his messages. It's mostly because I am a bad communicator. I prefer text and email to phone calls, and I don't visit frequently. I don't always return voicemails as quickly and as often as I should.

I know I won't change this behavior completely, but my father's death helped me realize why it's important that I at least try. And it's important for my son, who may one day ignore my phone calls and roll his eyes at my voicemails.

There are many perks to intimacy and openness. There's the sense of acceptance and the feelings of love. There's the knowledge that you're not alone and that you have people you can lean on. But if I want my son to know and experience these benefits, then I need to lead by example. I need to return those calls and schedule more Skype chats. I need to make more of a concerted effort to nurture a deeper connection with my family and friends, even when I know that effort may not be returned.

Everything will become precious

I've had cell phones crap out from water damage in the past. But when my phone dropped in the toilet a few weeks back, I had an emotional fit. I hadn't yet saved all the photos I had of my father with my son to my memory card, only a few from when my dad first went for rehabilitation three months after my son was born. The very last photos I took, the ones from a few weeks before my father died, were lost. And I lost all of his text messages and all his voicemails. I can no longer hear his voice.

You’ll always have your memories, but memories fade. Physical items then become that much more precious to you. I've never been one to hold on to material things, but I understand better now the need for keepsakes.

I'll still be selective of the tokens I keep, like photographs and baby's "firsts." But now I will place more value on the things I do find significant and make sure they're protected until my death. This way my son can have mementos to turn to after he drops his phone in the toilet.

You can keep their memory alive

My son won't have any memories of his grandfather. He was only a month old when my father went into the hospital, and 9 months old when my father died. But I do hold memories of those times they did spend together, and of how much he adored my son and my son's cousins.

The takeaway

I may have had a complicated relationship with my father, but I cannot deny the love he felt for his grandson. And I want my son to know. I want my son to know how my father held him and kissed his cheeks, the nicknames he gave him, and the smiles they shared.

I want him to know how proud he was to touch my belly, and how happy he was to see my son for the first time. All I can do is share stories and keepsakes, but hopefully doing so will allow my son to feel some connection to his grandfather, and for me to keep him close in my heart.

Annamarya Scaccia
CMS Id: 103597