All parents experience parental grief as part of their parenting journey.
There are two types of parental grief. There is the irreconcilable grief that comes from the death of a child that no parent ever truly recovers from. (If this is you I hold nothing but love and respect in my heart for your loss).
And then there is the more nuanced grief that comes from the loss of our identities, ideas and expectations of what parenthood would be like.
There is nothing in the world like it – this heartbreakingly beautiful experience of life and death – becoming and surrender that we as parents go through every day.
My Experience With Parental Grief
The past few years for me have been a bit of an emotional rollercoaster for me as a mum.
We moved cities a couple of years before Covid with two teenagers and a tween. This was a transition that was unsettling for our kids. After moving it became apparent that our two older children were increasingly struggling with their mental health due to a variety of factors. This struggle was amplified by the pandemic.
What ensued were years of crippling anxiety, depression, panic attacks, eating disorders and suicide ideation in my teens. I was overcome with feelings of helplessness and overwhelm as I struggled desperately to support them. After innumerable counselling and therapy sessions for my teens in a bid to help them, we discovered that our two older children were both Autistic. This diagnosis (although a relief) was the tip of a traumatic iceberg for everyone in our family.
In the ensuing few years, I was in shock trying grappling to make sense of things. I was totally out of my depth while trying my best to support my children in our world which seemed turned on its head (all while questioning my own neurodiversity).
I felt my world, my reality shrink around me as I travelled within – navigating complex, messy, intense feelings of what I can only describe as grief.
This was coupled with the shame of my grief because along the way somewhere, somehow I learned to believe that a ‘good parent’ meant that I wasn’t supposed to feel this way.
What Is Parental Grief?
On a basic level, grief is the natural healing process that we go through when we have suffered a real or perceived loss. Our grief allows us to process complex emotions that allow us to shift from feelings of profound loss to a stage of acceptance and meaning-making.
We go through grief when we go through transitions that are too hard for our brains, bodies and souls to comprehend. It is important to note that we only grieve in the places where we have love. In other words, if it’s not important to you, you won’t grieve the loss of it.
I believe that we need to move past the idea that grief is reserved for the loss we feel when someone dies. Parenting is one of the hardest things that we will ever do as human beings, filled with many life-altering transitions.
For most parents, family is a core value. This means that family is not only the most precious thing to us but also the thing that we judge ourselves the harshest on.
Not only do we set a high bar for ourselves with how we parent our kids but we often feel really judged by others. The pressure that we place on ourselves can feel overwhelming.
The parenting journey is both amazing and terrifying, beautiful and messy. It is a journey that we cannot explain to anyone else. Non-parents will never be able to comprehend it and our experiences vary so vastly from parent to parent that it makes comparison impossible.
The love that we feel as a parent for our kids has this way of cracking us wide open and exposing our most tender vulnerable parts out into the world. As parents our love, joy and pride sit so closely alongside our grief, sadness and shame that at any given moment it may be hard to distinguish between our experience of these emotions.Tanya Valentin
Some of the things that parents grieve may surprise you. Here are some of the other expected and unexpected things that may cause parental grief of varying intensity:
- Becoming a parent.
- Having a birth experience that did not go to ‘plan’.
- Having a baby born prematurely.
- Getting rid of our child’s baby clothes.
- Deciding that the baby you are pregnant with will be your last.
- Your child’s birthday.
- Watching your baby grow into a toddler.
- Your baby moving into a ‘big kid bed’.
- Watching your toddler grow into a preschooler.
- Your child’s first day at school.
- Your child’s first day at high school.
- Packing away our child’s ‘lovie’.
- Your child’s first sleepover.
- Your child’s diagnosis with a disability or health condition.
- Your daughter’s first period.
- Your child’s diagnosis of Autism or ADHD.
- Your child falling in love.
- Your child going off to university.
- Your child coming out to you as gay, lesbian, bisexual or asexual.
- Your child coming out to you as non-binary or transgender.
- Your child moving out.
- Your child making life choices that you don’t agree with.
- Your child getting married.
- Your child becoming a parent.
There are so many, many more instances or reasons why parents grieve – it can be complicated, things that we grieve as parents.
And here’s the thing.
Your children and other people who are not parents are never going to get it. And even though it may feel silly or other people don’t understand, it doesn’t mean that it is not real for you or that you are not allowed to feel this way. Grief never leaves our lives because love doesn’t leave.
If you are experiencing grief about aspects of your parenting journey find out how working with a parenting coach can help
The ‘Good Mother’ Code And Parental Grief
One thing that is often glossed over when discussing parental grief is the belief of how we ‘should’ be feeling. I can’t speak for fathers (because I’m not one) however my experience has been that as mothers we are taught that we should be ‘selfless’ for our children. That we ‘should’ love every moment of motherhood.
There is this toxic positivity in our culture that encourages us to minimise our experiences and bypass our emotions because we should be grateful.
We learn to internalise the message that it goes against the ‘good mother code’ to have anything but blissful thoughts and emotions towards mothering.
The brief that we all seemed to have received when our babies were born is:
“If you don’t love every moment of parenthood then you are doing it wrong.”
And often “If you grieve as a parent it means that you don’t love and accept your child for who they are.”
I’m sorry but I call bullshit on this. I believe that these two things do not correlate at all.
You can struggle, find things hard and grieve parts of your parenting experience and love, accept and even be happy for your kids.
Before you were a mother you were a person. A person who has the same rights to her needs, desires and feelings as any other human being. Your feelings are your feelings. There is no right or wrong way to feel.
“My most important parenting job is to teach my children how to deal with being human. There is really only one way to deal gracefully with being human, and that is: forgive yourself.”Glenon Doyle
If you are experiencing grief about aspects of your parenting journey find out how working with a parenting coach can help
The Bittersweet Symphony Of Parental Grief
All of these moments are part of what I like to call the bittersweet symphony of parental grief.
The dance – an aching backward and forwards as we chasse between joy for our child and our own heart-wrenching grief – a cacophony of emotions all at the same time.
In these instances, even though it feels trivial or self-indulgent, we are grieving a very real loss.
However, the loss that we are grieving isn’t the loss of a person. The loss we are grieving is the death of an identity, idea or belief. A version of our life, ourselves or a loved one that feels real to us is dying. It may not make logical sense, but in many cases, it is the death of the life that should have been. The ‘idea family’, child or parenting experience we thought we should have had.
A version of ourselves that needs to die so that we can make space in our hearts for the acceptance of the family or child we do have.
If grief were a maths equation I imagine that it would look something like this:
Expectation + Powerlessness = Grief
We had an expectation (a should) that felt so real to us, but that we were powerless to attain which we are now experiencing as grief.
To put this into perspective, I refer back to my own story at the beginning of this blog, my underlying desire (or expectation of myself) was to provide my children with childhood without suffering. This was something I was powerless to do and therefore I grieved the loss of this belief.
The reason that we find the grief process so overwhelming is that on an existential level, we are mourning the loss of certainty. It is the decimation of the illusion of control that we as human beings like to pretend that we have. This can be totally terrifying!
I know I am not alone when I say that the parenting toolbox I inherited from my parents feels inadequate to deal with some of the challenges we face when parenting teens in our unprecedented, current times.
Six Stages Of Parental Grief
There are 6 stages of grief that everyone who is grieving goes through. These are descriptive, not prescriptive. In other words, there is no one way of experiencing these stages.
Grief is messy and it often doesn’t make sense. Although most people start at the stage of denial and ultimately end up in acceptance or meaning-making, our journey through the stages of grief may not happen in any particular order or for any set amount of time. We can also go backwards, and forwards and flit between stages.
The 6 stages of grief are denial, bargaining, anger, depression, acceptance and meaning-making. (Based on the work of Elisabeth Kubler-Ross and David Kessler.)
Grief can look different for different people and the description below simplifies an extremely complex process. However, parental grief can look like this:
When we are in this stage of denial the underpinning story that we tell ourselves is that whatever is happening isn’t real. During the stage of denial, we cling to our dying belief not wanting to let it go. Internally we are driven by our deep feelings of fear and anxiety of uncertainty. We defend ourselves by denying a reality that is often too painful or overwhelming to comprehend. Shame is at play during the stage of denial as one of our deepest fears as parents is that our child’s suffering was caused by our ‘not enoughness’.
Outwardly, we may ignore warning signs, and deflect or dismiss what is really going on for our children or in our family dynamics. As parents, we may delay getting help for ourselves or our children. We may tell ourselves things like –“I’m fine”, “My teen is fine”, or “My family is fine, we don’t need help, I can manage this on my own.”
We may even think, “This is just a phase, they’ll outgrow it”, or “If I ignore it, it will just go away.”
Or we may distract ourselves by trying to ‘fix’ the behaviours of others, numb ourselves or lose ourselves in our busyness of managing day-to-day life.
The bargaining stage is punctuated with regret. We ask ourselves “Why?”. “Why me?” Why my child?” or “Why my family.”
We may also get the “If only’s” as we move into blaming ourselves or others for what happened.
A common thing that we may say to ourselves at this stage of grief is, “If only I had known…” or “If only I had done…”. We may try to bargain with God or whatever higher power we believe in.
In the bargaining stage of grief, as parents, we may even ‘bargain’ for a fix.
Anger can look like being angry with ourselves, our children, a co-parent, our parents, our kid’s school, our community, the medical system etc.
A lot of women were taught that anger is a ‘bad’ emotion. This can cause women to internalise their anger or go into denial about their anger. (I told you it was messy!)
Depression sets in when we realise that whatever has happened is real. There is nothing that we can do about it.
It just is.
This is the stage of futility. In this stage, we may feel helplessness, alienation, sadness and often utter despair. We may want to give up or shut ourselves away from the world. Everything feels like it is just too much to cope with.
The stage of acceptance is one that many parents resist. Many of the messages we receive around acceptance are that when we accept something we are saying that it is okay.
The truth is that there are several layers of acceptance, the first being, simply admitting to ourselves the truth of what is.
Grief is the most peculiar thing; we are so helpless in the face of it. It is like a window that opens on its own accord. The room gets dark, and we can do nothing but shiver. But it opens a little less each time, and a little less; and one day we wonder what became of it.Arthur Golden – Memiors of a Geisha
A stage of grief that was later added to the 5 stages of grief by David Kessler in his book: Finding Meaning: The Sixth Stage of Grief.
As we move deeper into acceptance we learn to believe in the validity of the reality that we are now living in. We may even allow ourselves to feel more hopeful as we start to think of what life will look like in this new version of actuality. We find meaning in our suffering and are able to use our experience as an opportunity for personal growth and in the service of others.
To move through our grief, we need to experience all of these stages – all of them.
The Awakening Process Of Grief
A helpful way for me to see the grief process is through the lens of awakening. Life is a constant process of birth, death and rebirth. In order for us to be open to the acceptance of new insights, wisdom and versions of ourselves as people we need to let go of old beliefs, understandings and versions of who we used to be.
The ‘ruptures’ that cause grief ‘awaken’ us so that we can become aware of deeper levels of ourselves and transform who we are through the process. In doing this, we can make space for a sense of deeper meaning and purpose of who we are and what we are here on this earth to achieve.
And once the storm is over, you won’t remember how you made it through, how you managed to survive. You won’t even be sure, whether the storm is really over. But one thing is certain. When you come out of the storm, you won’t be the same person who walked in. That’s what this storm’s all about.Haruki Murakami
As counterintuitive as it seems at times, it is important to recognise this grief process as valid and important and allow ourselves to feel it so that we can grow and heal through it.
According to research by Brene Brown, for her book Atlas of the Heart, the near enemy of connection is control. And this really resonated with me and my thoughts on the grieving process we go through as parents. On reflection, it has led me to this curious thinking.
What if one of the purposes of the grieving process is for us to relinquish our illusions of control so that we can become more deeply connected to ourselves and our children?Tanya Valentin
Support And Resources
If you are grieving parts of your parenting journey and you need some support, working with a parenting coach can help. I help you by providing a safe and judgment-free space for you to talk about what is on your heart and process your grief and your emotions.
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Meet The Person Who Wrote This Blog
Tanya Valentin is a Trauma-Informed and Neuro-Affirming Family Coach, Lecturer (Te Pukenga – Early Childhood Education and Care), Author and Podcaster.
Tanya is a Neurodivergent person and a proud Mama of 3 Neurodivergent and LGBTQ+ humans. She works to support, educate and foster inclusion and acceptance for all neurodivergent, gender diverse and LGBTQIA children, teenagers and adults in all her areas of life.
Tanya lives with her family in beautiful Northland, New Zealand. She has authored several books and blogs and co-hosts the Seen Heard Accepted Podcast with her family.
Tanya is committed to making a difference in the world by working in partnership with parents to support them to connect with and understand themselves and their children.
Need personalised support for yourself and your family? Book your FREE 30-minute call with Tanya