Hearing the Wisdom of Bereaved Caregivers in this Season

Listening to the Wisdom of Bereaved Caregivers in this Winter Season

Our team at Arizona State University’s REACH Institute has been engaged with bereaved families for many years, as program developers, supervisors, trainers, and researchers with the Resilient Parenting for Bereaved Families Program. We have worked directly with our amazing partner organizations that serve grieving children and their families, collaborating with them to implement the program and, this fall, to adapt the program for direct online use by parents and caregivers. (You can check out the Practical Tools here.)

Along this journey, we have learned so much from listening to parents, grandparents, and other caregivers of children who have lost a parent. Being witness to the grief of others is a sacred privilege, and we have felt honored to sit in the presence of grief and pain as well as all the joy as people have shared stories of their partners and children with us and with one another. These families have been our teachers -- about caring, resilience, and important truths about how to make a good life and family in the midst of grief and loss.

As we head into what may be some of the darkest days and weeks following an extraordinarily challenging year, we want to reflect back on some of the lessons we have learned from the wisdom of bereaved caregivers and those who serve them about healing, surviving, and helping children thrive. These lessons are useful for all of us, whatever our losses have been this year.

Gratitude and Adaptation

Gratitude is not a miracle -- it is a practice, apparent in little things. First, gratitude requires adapting to change rather than resisting it. Loss requires adaptation. Adapting to the notion that the holidays will be different than they were in past years is something every grieving family has gone through. Bereaved caregivers have shown us that gratitude starts with not being so hard on yourself when things don’t go according to plan, or when you can’t make reality conform to expectations.

Being patient through the low points enables families to notice and allow themselves to have gratitude for the crests. This is the everyday practice of taking time and intention to notice the things that are going ok or well, in spite of all the difficulties. It looks like parents and caregivers displaying kindness and gentleness for themselves and their children, appreciating one another’s strength and courage to get through really tough times.

We are taking the wisdom of adaptation and gratitude with us into this challenging new year, recognizing all that we have so that we may fully experience the joyful moments.

Giving and Receiving Support

We have witnessed the awesome impact of supportive relationships among grieving caregivers. When caregivers are able to step out of their parenting roles for an hour they can simply be grieving adults together, providing and accepting support from one another. As we have learned from our partners who serve grieving families, there is palpable relief in spaces built for and by grieving adults. In these support spaces, there are smiles, laughter, and joy just as much as tears, pain, and grief. Grieving adults can let their guards down with one another, finding space to express the full range of their emotions because they understand the pain that has shaped one another’s lives. They can support one another’s parenting while also expressing the adult struggles and strains that they cannot fully voice with their children present. Mutual support and the sharing of empathy, encouragement, and praise rejuvenates caregivers for the isolating work of bereaved caregiving.

The lack of parties and gatherings this year means that we have to make an extra effort to connect with people outside our households. We are taking the importance of support as a lesson into this year’s unusually isolated holiday season. For everyone who is experiencing loss and loneliness, reaching out to other adults, taking the time to make that phone call and truly share struggles with one another, will fortify struggling caregivers for the day-to-day work of parenting through this pandemic winter.

Focusing on Children

After the loss of a loved one, focusing on the work of parenting (which is not easy to begin with!) can require a great deal of support and effort.

We have seen incredible strength from bereaved caregivers. When they are experiencing particular lows that make it challenging to focus on anything beyond their own pain, we have witnessed them digging deep, calling on their reserves and their support, and doing what their children need them to do.

For all of us, doing what our children need us to do this winter might mean simply sitting down to listen, or fulfilling a promise to spend quality time, or doing something meaningful to memorialize a loved one who has died. One mother said that she was able to show up on the anniversary of her husband’s death because her love for her children was bigger than her discomfort that day. Others have had the courage to show their children that they do not have all the answers, asking and hearing input from their kids and having honest conversations about feelings.

It is no small thing to learn how to be there, to listen, and to share feelings with our children, especially when families are cooped up together 24-7 without so many of the other people we rely on for day-to-day interaction and support. We are reminded of this lesson from bereaved caregivers as we all work hard to keep our families strong and our children connected in meaningful ways this winter.

Grief, Joy, and Meaningful Everyday Living

Pain and joy are not two separate experiences - they can walk hand in hand, both in a forward motion, sometimes tugging at one another, but also honoring and comforting each other. Bereaved families are dealing with immense challenges and sorrow, yet they are also living such full lives. This parallel process can be antithetical to so many things people believe about suffering - that we have to heal first, and then we can move forward. But really, these are concurrent streams of emotion. We grieve, and we live life.

Wisdom from bereaved caregivers is a gift in this challenging season, helping us to be present for our children and for others in our household, day after day. Whether you are one of the many who have lost a loved one this year, whether you are grieving an earlier loss, or whether you are simply struggling with the multiple forms of grief and loss that have plagued our communities this year, we hope this wisdom may help you, as well.