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The Tragedy of Parenting After the Loss of a Spouse

Rod Jasmer, author of Without Explanation

Within weeks of the death of my wife, I was completely overwhelmed with the myriad of things to do as a single father. I’d always thought I’d played a substantial role in my children’s lives, but this, this was something completely different. Raising children can be demanding in the best of times, and I woefully underestimated the time involved. Many of you know this life all too well, but I only now understand its vastness. It is unglamorous and tedious to some and has been many times for me, but I have come to respect this life and have come to peace with its meaning for me.

My wife, Valerie, died unexpectedly in the jungle of northern Guatemala. The frantic attempts to save her life, working to transport her body back to the United States and telling my young children they would never see their loving mother again took their toll. Emotions, both positive and negative, filled our days. Each member of my family would take a slightly different and circuitous path to make peace with the situation. Suffice it to say, I had a lot to learn.

It wasn’t until after the funeral and our friends and relatives left our house that the newness of an unfamiliar life started to hit me. I had no idea what to do next. All I wanted was to sit, close my eyes and think about how much I loved my wife, though the three somber faces looking to me for direction suggested I needed a better plan. Tempting as it was to think about running away from my new life, I knew my children needed me more than ever. That realization provided impetus to keep me going, as I needed to be strong for them.

Researching:

I started by reading as much as I could about grief. Specifically, I focused on how to get the kids to a better place without the loving nurture of their mother. I hoped the words would provide straightforward answers and a simple recipe—just follow these steps, do this or that and all would be right. Deep down, I knew there was no easy answer or step-by-step protocol, but still I searched. The books helped me understand a few basic elements of grief; however, after reading several, they all started to sound the same. From the research, there didn’t appear to be a single method or “correct way” to help children through such an ordeal. From my own learning, I discovered that children process loss completely different than adults and that handling children’s emotions takes plenty of patience.

Processing Takes Time:

I’ve gathered that emotions and actions—good or bad—tend to come out over time and in ways that cannot be predicted. I found this to be true for my family. As an example, when the fifth-year anniversary of my wife’s death approached, my son, who was thirteen at the time, was having an exceptionally difficult time. One night, having just returned from town and still sitting in our driveway in my pickup, my son broke down in tears. After a while of talking, he shared with me several things that he’d been carrying with him since his mother’s death without telling anyone. The words were heart-wrenching to hear, but it was good for him to finally say what had been gnawing at his soul for all those years. Confirmation that healing is indeed a process.

The Level of Detail:

I discovered that children tend to react very differently than adults when faced with difficult situations. In my case, the striking distinction was consistent in each instance. Though all the adults I told about my wife’s passing had greatly differing personalities, the resulting dialogue was similar. They didn’t want to believe what I was saying at first and sought more explanation and specific details. They clearly heard and understood my words, yet they did not believe them.

My children did not ask any of these questions. They heard the same words that I told the adults, but they didn’t need to hear them again. What, where and how were only details to them, and they couldn’t care less about the answers. Their father had just told them that their mother had died. That was enough to hear; no additional clarification was requested. They needed simply to be held, to cry and to hold their mother’s love in their minds.

Hastening of Time:

Don’t be surprised if everything in your life feels accelerated. My life was in fast motion, and I didn’t know how to stop it. Frankly, it was the opposite of what I’d expected. It would take three years before my mind stopped constantly spinning and I felt more like my former self. Much later, I realized the fast-paced feeling might have been a blessing for me and my family. The part of me that wanted to give up, move somewhere unknown and quit this strange life was still there, but the busyness helped me focus energy toward work and children, leaving little time to worry about other things or to feel sorry for myself.

A Clash Between Old and New:

With dramatic change, typically there are associated challenges. It’s okay if you don’t know how to help others or even yourself. My mind obviously knew that change was forthcoming, but the degree to which my life would alter wasn’t discovered immediately. You will likely find that every month will bring an endless supply of events that remind you and your children just how much you have lost. Each birthday, anniversary and tradition carries with it a unique set of memories. Whether it’s a favorite Halloween costume or the days leading up to Christmas, in many aspects, the more enjoyable the past event the more difficult it can be. The happiest times can become some of the worst of times. I’ll admit to gritting my teeth and hoping the event would pass as soon as possible knowing the next one was just around the corner. With the passage of time, many of the events got better. New memories are made, and with them comes a renewed sense of anticipation.

Learning to Embrace Change:

To create as much normalcy for my family as possible, I knew I needed to make a substantial change. Not only for my family but for me as well. I didn’t know fully what that meant, though after several years, I knew I could no longer follow my existing path. I ended up quitting what, to that point in my life, had become my career. I understand that I was fortunate even to have that option, and I knew financially such dramatic change couldn’t last long, but it was what I needed at the time. It turned out to be a good decision. I learned that no one can modify your life for you. I needed to be comfortable with making the change, not completely certain how it would turn out but trusting the decision was made with the best intentions.

Many can sympathize, love and care deeply; however, fewer can truly understand the loss of a spouse at an early age. My intent here is to simply provide a perspective based on my situation and that of being a single parent.

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