In the first days after Rob died, one of his best friends came to visit us with a special word on his heart for my boys. Our families are very close; our children have grown up together. The two dads are so much alike that mine see Rob’s friend as a second father. When Rob’s friend arrived, I smiled and sent my sons off with him into the backyard. As I watched through the window, they embraced and headed off to talk. Our friend carried a single, holy message for my sons’ hearts: You’re not the man of the house now.
Since Rob died, I have committed that my children will remain just that — children. The chaplain who met us exhorted me to protect my children in this way, and I have taken his words seriously. From that night on, I have guarded my children’s remaining innocence with mama bear ferocity. So much has been stripped away by Rob’s death; what remains now is precious and extremely fragile.
The Information Gatekeeper
Guarding my children’s remaining childhood takes lots of forms in our family life. When we discuss the details of Rob’s death, I work hard to give my children information that is developmentally appropriate for them. This looks vastly different for each child and requires that I be a constant student of my kids, observing and learning from them to ascertain how to serve them best. I can’t just talk about what happened in general; I need to tailor conversation to each child’s unique personality and needs. This requires that I know them well.
I always answer my children’s questions with honesty and forthrightness, with gentleness and a careful attention to what they can handle. In every conversation I ask myself, What do they want to know? What do they need to know? It’s not about what I want to say, but about what they can hear. I have gone the extra mile to be prepared to answer these questions with increasing complexity as they grow older.
The standards for these conversations also offer helpful guidelines as I choose what other information enters our home. The movies we watch, the news we ingest, the books we read. I assess all of these through a “grief filter” as I determine how best to help my children lean into or gain relief from their grief. We recently stopped a family read aloud mid-book (one of the few times ever); there was simply too much death in the story for the kids to stomach. Even seemingly innocent comments from friends such as “I just about died when [fill in the blank]” can strike a tender chord.
The Only Adult In The House
When it comes to more everyday matters, my choice to let my children be children requires that I reckon with the reality that I’m the only adult in the house now. “In all of our years of working with grieving people, one of the most common and difficult-to-overcome problems is the child who was cast in or adopted the role of taking care of everyone else. It is one of the most heart-wrenching examples of loss-of-childhood experiences … [Death] will affect them enormously without the additional burden of growing up before their time,” write John James and Russell Friedman in When Children Grieve.
For me, this means that even my eldest teenager isn’t an assistant parent; she’s still a child. Because of this commitment, there are many times I shoulder the work of two parents without asking for their help. After my kids have finished their regular chores, I let them play, just like they would have when Rob was alive, rather than ask them to do additional household tasks. This can be hard to do when the weight of my responsibility falls heavy on my shoulders. But I am making choices like these for what research shows will be my children’s lifelong benefit.
There are many ways my children have had to “step it up” in the months since Rob died, but my boys are not the men of the house. My girls are not surrogate or associate parents. While my children pick up extra jobs to help out around the house, I am careful never to have them replace what Rob would have done. I am cautious that they never feel they are Rob’s emotional or physical proxy in our household.
A Shoulder To Cry On
Because I let my children be children, I choose not to rely on them emotionally in ways I would have looked to Rob. When I need a shoulder to cry on or someone with whom to hash out a decision, I call a friend or journal to figure out an answer. I am transparent with my children about my mistakes, my fears, and my sadness. I do not try to appear impervious to emotion or stress. But I am always attentive to our relational roles: I am the parent, they are the children. My kids hug me when I cry, just like they used to before Rob died. We offer each other mutual comfort and deep affection. But I never want to cast my children in the role of my emotional caregiver.
There was a time when “You’re the man of the house now” was the standard exhortation for a boy who stood at his father’s grave. However, as Rob’s wise friend told my boys, the truth is that it takes a lifetime to make that man. No ten year old should be called up to the ranks of household leader. No son should feel like he needs to (or can) take his father’s place. No teenager should feel she must shoulder her mother’s emotional weight. If these things are to be avoided, it must begin with me.
Kids Will Be Kids
When folks meet my children, they often tell me “They seem so happy” or “They’re doing remarkably well.” I heartily agree. My children are remarkably happy, resilient people. It’s a testament to how well they are loved by so many. I am constantly in awe of them. Our tribe of five is my favorite bunch of humans on the planet.
Nevertheless, casual observers don’t see the fragility behind the laughter, the marred innocence behind the tween goofiness. Grief has reshaped our entire family structure. There is a naïveté that is missing now in all of our lives. We are all stronger and more tender than we were before. As the gatekeeper of our family, I see both sides.
Someday, when my children talk about losing their father, they will say, “I was just a kid when my dad died.” If I can offer any protection for their remaining innocence in the face of such loss, I will count my work done well. I hope they can be children for a little while longer, even after Rob’s death. Only when they are grown and have families of their own, do I hope my sons call themselves the men of the house.