Maria's blog: World Mental Health Day
This is particularly close to my heart as following my late husband's sudden death by sepsis just over 6 years ago, my concern for my daughter's mental health then, now and for the future took a whole different meaning.
There were so many questions running through my mind from the moment I broke the news to her about daddy never coming back (she was about to turn 4 years old) to every meltdown she subsequently had without knowing why herself. Was it related to loss? Or was it part of growing up? Were the lack of tears in relation to losing daddy her way of protecting me? And if so how could I encourage her more to express her feelings and let it all out?
I remember reading alarming statistics about the higher risk of poor mental health for bereaved children, kids raised by a single parent, etc. I worried sick about how to best support her following such a trauma. I felt guilty for grieving myself, in case that might affect her. The list goes on…
It's been a tough journey and I know it's not over. I have been told from people who have gone through this as bereaved kids themselves, that grief will continue to manifest itself on and off throughout her life at key moments when daddy should be there or when least expected but I have learnt a lot in the process. A number of sessions with a child psychologist my daughter agreed to see (very mature of her) helped us both but the work is ongoing.
So what are the key lessons I have learnt about children's mental health, both through mine (as a parent) and my daughter's counselling? Here are a few snippets: (Disclaimer: I am no expert, every child is unique and this is merely my personal experience!)
I have learnt it's important to validate her feelings even when I find them unpleasant (e.g. anger), they are legitimate feelings whatever they are, there is no right and wrong in grief. Daddy dying is unfair: full stop, no buts. Sometimes we just want someone to listen and understand how we feel, no judgement, no pep talk, just let me feel this way. I will also tell her it's unfair to take it out on people around us and whilst I know that's tough, we can find a healthier way to cope with that feeling together and I am here to support her at those difficult times. We have learnt from counselling to punch and kick pillows to release the anger followed by a good cry, a chat and a hug: this approach has worked very well for us!
When it comes to loss, it's important to keep talking about the deceased. As painful (as well as cathartic) as it can still be for me at times, I make a conscious effort to keep daddy's memories alive for her. I share stories, jokes, habits, expressions, photos of him with her. We also put together a memory box for her with some of his belongings and whilst it's heart-breaking to sometimes find her smelling his t-shirt or hugging his picture trying to feel close to him, it reminds me that she needs him in her life in spirit and the fear of forgetting him is scary for her; it also means that despite not wanting to show it, she still misses him. I remind her that she will always have a daddy and he will always be part of our family, even though he is no longer with us physically as I have sensed in the past that being one of the few in her school not to have a daddy makes her feel inadequate.
As humans we tend to take our negative emotions out on those closest to us. When she is upset and horrid to me I have learnt to hold it together instead of shouting (most of the time, subject to my stress levels!). I will tell her that I love her but I will not accept that behaviour. I will then remove myself from the situation, i.e. leaving the room and telling her that I will be ready to talk to her when she has calmed down and treats me with respect. My counsellor told me it's very important that when we tell children off for their behaviours we need to make it clear it's their behaviour we don't like but we still love them. It can be damaging if we don't make that distinction clear to them. I have also learnt that shouting at them about being ungrateful for all we do for them is effectively emotional blackmail and totally unfair as younger kids can't really grasp that concept! Ooops! Slap on my wrist!!
Life is full of ups and downs; sometimes bad things happen which we cannot change. But we can choose how we react to them. It's important we don't fight our feelings, that we let them flow through us, we accept them as part of the healing process and we don't try to be strong by not crying or holding them in, because actually being strong means facing and processing our feelings, expressing them and being authentic about them.
Whilst it's ok to be sad and angry and externalise feelings (within reason), it also helps to keep a positive attitude and be grateful for all the good things in our lives too! A jar filled with bits of paper listing all the positive things that we feel, have and experience every day is a great visual way of displaying how many good things are in our life if we choose to see them. Keeping perspective and being aware that we are not the only ones going through a tough time helps.
It's important to encourage children to be who they are. It's tempting to try and steer them in a certain way based on who we are as parents and what we aspire them to be, but I am learning to accept that our kids can be the polar opposite of us and that's not only ok, but we need to respect and value those differences. For example I used to apologise profusely for my daughter not wanting to join in at some parties or not wanting to play with certain people. Now I ask her first and if she doesn't want to, I politely decline invitations. If she is finding a social situation challenging, I will talk it through with her. If she doesn't want to play with someone because they are not nice, I admire her confidence and sense of self-worth. Why should she play with someone who isn't nice if she has the choice not to? If anything I have learnt from her to be more true to myself.
I have learnt to praise her a lot more and point out her flaws less and guess what, she responds much better to this new approach to feedback! She is positive and confident and when I point out poor behaviours I try to convey the message in a clear yet tactful way, listening to what she thinks about my comments, providing words of encouragement and advice on how to improve. I will often say that I used to do that myself and then I learnt so and so. She is more receptive to advice when I say I have experienced something similar and I understand how frustrating or upsetting something is (the power of empathy! This is a great video in my opinion, well worth a watch https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=1Evwgu369Jw ).
We don't all express feelings in the same way: talking doesn't suit everyone at hard times, so offer blank paper and colours, a diary, a guessing game or just tell them if they need a little time alone that's ok and that we love them, and we will be there ready to listen, talk and support them when they are ready to open up and share.
Personally I grew up with anxiety and panic attacks, so my experience makes me want to do all I can to prevent such mental health issues and beyond, by encouraging seeking help openly without stigma (I have been very transparent about my bereavement counselling), by parenting in a way that provides her with tools to process feelings, cope with change and life challenges in a resilient manner, a parenting style that is open, communicative, encourages introspection, self-awareness and self-care.
As her counsellor said at the last session over a year ago, my daughter is a well-adjusted child all things considering; she is happy and cheerful and more confident and assertive than me! We have been working on her empathy (or lack of, towards me especially) and occasionally disproportionate sense of entitlement (typical of children who have experienced loss at a young age I am told), but we have come a long way on both counts since her counselling! The past few years have been challenging but have taken us to a much better place so I am hopeful we are on an emotional healthy path.
I am far from the perfect parent and I am very aware of the fact that I can't control what life will throw at her, but I can try to be the most supportive parent who will guide her through the dark days back to light with all my love, empathy and understanding.
Maria is a Diversity & Inclusion consultant for a global tech company. She is a single parent to her 10 year old daughter following the sudden death of her my husband died 6 years ago.