Managing Parenting Anxiety After Loss
When grief turns you into a helicopter parent, how can you know what is "safe" anymore?
After my second miscarriage, I became convinced that my 1-year-old daughter would die. I worried incessantly when she rode in someone else's car. When she briefly developed a limp, I was certain she had leukemia. I wielded disinfectant wipes obsessively and watched her like a hawk, never comfortable when she was out of my sight.
What I didn't know then, but understand now, is that anxiety after loss is typical. Many parents, whether they are grieving a miscarriage, stillbirth, or the loss of an older child, often become overly concerned with the safety of their surviving children.
It makes sense that these parents "feel that tragedy can strike at any time, without warning," as Deborah Davis, PhD, writes in her book Empty Cradle, Broken Heart. "You may feel that life is very tenuous, that you can't count on everything turning out alright." What may be more surprising is that, according to Davis, "many parents find that these overprotective feelings linger for years."
Years. That's a scary word. Having been there myself, I asked experts for their tips on how to get comfortable with the inevitable separations of life.
It's ok to keep them close
The first thing I want other parents to know is how normal these feelings are. Experiencing these kinds of losses "pokes a hole in your protective sense of safety," says Heather Roselaren, LCSW, a Berkeley-based therapist who specializes in working with families surviving loss. Roselaren helps her clients "patch that hole slowly, carefully, and gently," and says that part of that process "may be letting your kid be next to you until you feel safer."
After the stillbirth of her son Oliver, Memphis-area mother Kimmer Saini, 44, spent 24 hours a day with her surviving 14-month-old son. "I rocked Chay to sleep every night and slept in the rocking chair in his room for months."
In the car, Saini would sit in the backseat so she could watch her son while her husband drove. "I'm pretty sure everyone thought I'd lost my mind," she says. "And in a way I did."
Suzanne Pullen, 44, lost her son Avery to stillbirth in 2005, and subsequently gave birth to her second son Quinn. She finds that some days she needs to "hold Quinn's hand, give him extra hugs, or just be close to him." As a bereaved parent advocate, Pullen says, "every one of us who has had a child die recognizes the impulse."
"Parenting is always a balancing act between encouraging our children to bravely seek out what the wide world has to offer with our desire to keep them safe from harm," Pullen says. "Those of us who have had a child die know how difficult that really is."
Letting go of the illusion of control
Part of the reason grieving parents can have difficulty giving a measure of freedom to their surviving children is that we are caught up in a false sense that we can control the world our children live in. Sometimes we obsess – as I did after my first two miscarriages – over things we may have done to endanger our pregnancies or our children, when so much of life is simply out of our control.
"It's a modern day myth that we can keep anything bad from ever happening to our children," says Lenore Skenazy, author of the book Free Range Kids. And the truth is that "all the worry in the world doesn't prevent death; it prevents life," says Skenazy.
It also denies parents the joy of watching their children spread their wings. When parents "squeeze their eyes shut and let their kid take a risk, the kid is so happy and so proud that they got to do something on their own. That child's joy squeezes out a lot of the parent's fear," says Skenazy.
No one expects that kind of epiphany overnight, of course. It will take time and practice to give your children the space they need to grow up – whether that's on the playground, at daycare, or at a first sleepover. These things may not come naturally at first, but eventually doing them will begin to feel more comfortable for you.
Practice letting go alongside other parents
Roselaren suggests that grieving families spend time with a family who has children the same age to help reestablish a "sense of what's ok, safe enough, and normal." When you see your friend's child take a spill off the slide, dust herself off, and keep playing, it may help you to take a break from your post at the end of the slide or under the monkey bars.
It may take several playdates before this begins to feel normal. But once you see other parents giving their children space and freedom, you may find it easier to begin letting go and experiment with longer separations, such as letting your child go on a playdate without you.
Do something for yourself when you are apart
It's more effective to have a comforting (and distracting) plan in place to care for yourself when you are away from you child rather than simply admonishing yourself to change your perspective. So, when you are finally ready for a separation from your child, Roselaren advises parents "to do something else with their anxiety." She asks people to think of something that is comforting to them – getting a haircut, buying new shoes, cleaning out a closet with music playing, having lunch out with friends – and plan to do it during the time apart.
Connect with parents who understand
Online forums can provide support and reassurance that you are not the only one having difficulty parenting after a loss. Try:
• The Bump
Pullen also recommends these organizations that specialize in helping grieving parents:
• Compassionate Friends – This group helps grieving parents who have lost a child at any age, from any cause.
• First Candle – This is a grief support hotline for those who have had a miscarriage, stillbirth, or neonatal death.
• Star Legacy Foundation – This is a community of parents, families, and friends of stillborn babies.
• MISS Foundation – The MISS Foundation is a volunteer-based organization that provides a range of services to families experiencing the death of a child of any age.
When to consider professional help
If you're having ongoing feelings of denial about your loss, experiencing nightmares, or blaming yourself for your child's death, individual therapy or a support group with a professional who specializes in coping with grief can be very helpful.
It's also important to know that depression is a potential complication of grief. If you're struggling with feelings of hopelessness and worthlessness, or if you're having suicidal thoughts (including actively wishing you had died along with your child), seek professional help immediately.
One day you will see how far you have come
It was very difficult for me to shake the feeling that something terrible would befall my healthy child after my miscarriages, but over time I have been able to let go in ways I would never have imagined.
This summer, as I took my daughter to the bus for Girl Scout Camp, I didn't once think about the safety concerns that used to paralyze me. I didn't even pack hand sanitizer or ask to see the bus driver's safety record. As the bus pulled away, whisking her off to a week of horses and archery, I simply cried and waved goodbye, just like all the other mothers.