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Parenting Without a Parent

In desperation, I entrusted my car keys to an approachable onlooker, offering a quick explanation before bolting through traffic on foot.  It was a holiday and a beautiful morning for a parade. As daughters of a firefighter, my sisters and I always had a great love of parades – we wax nostalgic over privileged seating in the cab of the fire trucks, smiling, waving and sometimes throwing candy to onlookers. (Regulations later prohibited anyone but firefighters from riding in the cabs of the trucks.) This particular morning, however, my father lay dying at Hospice. With the parade route blocking my sole access to him, I barely noticed everyone’s smiling faces. I cannot recall ever feeling so hindered.

We had been with dad all night as he weakened, and then transferred from my parents’ home to Hospice. By 5 am, I knew my infant soon would be waking. I had struggled so much with my own expectations regarding my role as a daughter, versus my role as a mother. The stress of the past month had dwindled my milk supply, for both output and freezer storage, but I was determined to breastfeed, and wanted to be home when she awoke. In my heart, I was aware it could be the last time I saw him alive, and though he barely knew it as my sister and I departed, we whispered our tearful goodbyes to him, urging him to let go for a swift and seamless passing, should we miss it.

Many months after dad died – after the restless nights, the vivid dreams featuring him alive and smiling, and after beating myself up and finally forgiving myself for not taking a more proactive role in battling his cancer – I could contemplate my own loss and sometimes control my tears. But other times – like my daughters’ birthdays, or the first time my eldest spontaneously danced ballet for about 15 minutes for all her extended family and their ensuing cameras, or the moment my one-year-old started pointing her index finger to meet a loved one’s, just like her big sister did with my dad at that age – those are the times I am unable to move beyond missing him and grieving his loss. My daughters notice, and ask me if I am sad because I miss Granddad. What they don’t realize is that I am missing him for them: It is my children’s loss I mourn the most.

I understand parents should predecease their children. That is the natural order of things, after all. However, if your parent dies while your own children are still young (or yet to be), the loss is multiplied; for then you are no longer ‘simply’ suffering your own loss, you are mindfully mourning the loss of a grandparent for your children as well. My girls – at two-and-a-half years, and six months – were too young to know my dad before he died; they will not have memories of him, except for those I establish since his death. I selfishly yearn for 10 (20? 30!) extra years so they could truly know their Granddad for all his quirky jokes, his faults and his honor.

A changing demographic

The unfortunate truth is our children no longer have their lifetimes to establish a relationship with their grandparents. Many of us will be parenting our children without one, or both, of our own parents. Allison Gilbert explains this in her book Parentless Parents: How the Loss of Our Mothers and Fathers Impacts the Way We Raise Our Children. While our overall life expectancy is increasing, it is not keeping pace with the over 200 per cent increase in the number of babies being born to women age 35 and over, over the last three decades.

“For the first time in history, millions of children (and their parents) are vulnerable to having less time with their grandparents than more,” says Gilbert.

I concur with Gilbert that this is a truly irreplaceable loss: not only for trusted childcare, but also in sharing knowledge, from family genealogy to specific skills sets like sailing, quilting or fishing. For those of us without a parent or parents, we must take on the responsibility of actively communicating aspects of that person’s life with our children. We begin by sharing photos and stories, but when our kids’ eyes gloss over, we need another approach.

How can you retain their memory?

“If you have some tangible things that were special to you from or because of your parents, sit with your child and tell them about it,” says parentless parent Hildi Cornwell, whose mother died when she was 14, and father when she was 26. “I told [my son] about my homemade pound puppies and we played with my purple pinewood derby car together a lot.”

Gilbert also suggests taking “Grandparent Field Trips” to Grandpa’s workplace or Grandma’s hometown, so your children can experience them. Also, to see what physical attributes your children take from their grandparents, Gilbert recommends layering photos. Another suggestion is you write letters to your child “from” his or her grandparent. (This is a tough one for me personally, as my dad was a man of few words; however, I love the idea.) If your parent is sick but able, have him record his voice reading a favorite book, like ’Twas the Night Before Christmas, or have her write or transcribe a letter to her grandchildren. These will become invaluable keepsakes and will provide conversation starters over the years.

How can you parent when you need to be parented yourself?

As Gilbert points out, no matter how many parenting books you read, the experts cannot supply the answers to a parent’s eternal question, “Was I like that?” One might take for granted a grandparent’s “when your mom was your age…” tale, but for parents without parents, these stories are like gold. Gilbert suggests maintaining communication with your parents’ friends, neighbors, coworkers and other family members – anyone who can relate stories to your kids as your parents would have.

Those stories are as much for you, as they are for your children. “I still desperately need to be parented too,” says Jessica Minor, who was 21 when her mother died. “My mother would search my eyes and know just what to say to point me in the right direction. I feel like I need her more than ever at this stage in my life.” Minor, a mother of three, says she grieves daily that she is not able to navigate these early years of parenthood with her; all the ins and outs, ups and downs.

To help compensate, Gilbert insists you parent yourself. You can’t expect your spouse or your in-laws to take on the role of parenting you, because their roles are already defined. “I must do the things I think my parents would have urged me to do for myself,” says Gilbert, citing examples like working out, spending time with friends or going for a walk. “No one is saying that my kids don’t need things and that my husband isn’t rightfully in need of whatever his needs are at that particular time. But my job alone – and one no one else can take care of – is making sure that the voice that takes care of me, is equally loud.”

Where can you find help?

Death of any loved one, whether unanticipated or long-expected, elicits grief.

“Grief is very normal, and it can be very helpful to share your experiences with your peers,” says Vicky Ott, Executive Director at Fernside Grief Center.

“That’s true for both children and adults.” When explaining death to your children, Ott urges use of specific language. Say things like, “The body stopped working and [he/she] died,” rather than, “They are sleeping and they won’t ever wake up,” which can yield sleep issues for young children. “To pretend it did not happen, or it is not going to happen, is not helpful,” says Ott.

In a way, parents without a parent are given an opportunity to teach our children perspective. Our children’s lives will be full of ups and downs, and some of those hindrances will be inconvenient; others will be life-changing. Parents without parents can better illustrate the difference.

Networking through grief

Just as there is no timeframe for grief, there is also no way to predict when it will strike the hardest. Though I anticipated all of “the firsts” to be difficult, my mood unexpectedly plummets when I am confronted by a sudden reminder, or when I hear of someone else’s loss. During those times, I rely on my network of friends.

If you prefer virtually instant cyber support, you can join the Parentless Parents group on Facebook, which Gilbert moderates. Also, in response to her book, Gilbert has helped establish chapters of Parentless Parents support groups across the United States and Canada. She can be reached at This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it. for chapter information or possible discussion topics.

Unlike employees, parents do not get bereavement time. But we do enter into a sort of special club, populated by people who anticipate your needs before you can verbalize them: a beloved cousin who holds your screaming baby through the funeral, or a parent of your child’s friend who realizes a common bond, or the thoughtful friend who, despite your protests, stocks your pantry and fridge while you are at the hospital, even including a new teether for the baby. You will especially recognize those who have lost loved ones before you, because they look you squarely in the eye when they say they are “here for you”. It is not just a saying; they are. We are. When we are suffering, you are there to hold our hands, or our car keys, at precisely the right moment. And for those spontaneous acts of kindness, we appreciate you, always.

What can you do if your parent friend loses a parent?

Watch the kids while the family makes funeral preparations. My in-laws were on their way to visit dad, but stayed extra days to watch our girls while my husband accompanied me to the funeral home, church, etc. Their presence for my children during a difficult time was invaluable.

Sit with their children during the funeral, especially if they are present for the services. This necessitates being aware of how the parents are communicating the death to their children, and following along with their script.

Be specific. After making all of the decisions involving a funeral, the last thing I wanted was to make another decision. Instead of saying, “Let me know what day works best for you,” say, “I’m making a chicken pot pie and I’m bringing it over Tuesday around 5 pm. Is that okay?”

Remember the important dates. Copy the deceased’s birth dates and dates of death from the prayer cards into your own calendar, and call your friend the week of the anniversary.

Share a warm memory with your friend when you recall it. My cousin randomly shared a story she remembered about my dad winning a headstand contest at a family gathering, and his keys and spare change falling out of his pockets. I had forgotten that moment until she emailed me; but I savored the smile it brought to my face upon recalling it.

Listen. If your friend calls because they are sad about losing their parent (even months or years later) listen and identify with their loss. Don’t offer consolation like, “He’s in a better place now,” because those words ring empty when that moment of missing him is so great.

Kara is a freelance journalist, wife and mother to two delightful daughters. In addition to his quirky sense of humor, she hopes her girls exhibit their Granddad’s tolerant disposition, his passion for sailing and his nearly perfect sense of direction.

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