I am dropping off my son for his first day in the army today. It is a huge milestone for Israeli teenagers. Another milestone that his dad, who died a few days after he turned 5, will miss.
So much time has passed… Over 13 years. The grief, while still there, is no longer fresh. I compare it to any other chronic condition that can be managed and even treated. But some days, like on these big milestones, I feel the flare-up of sadness and loss, and most of all regret that Jeremy, who moved to Israel from the UK with dreams of building an Israeli family, cannot witness what an amazing young man his son has become.
We are transitioning as a family, from the milestones of childhood to those of adulthood. Finishing elementary school, becoming bar mitzvah, getting a driving license, graduating high school, and now, leaving home for the army. While I am peacock-proud of my kids, these milestones hit me hard.
After the loss of a young parent, kids’ milestones are complicated. I found it sweet that my son asked my husband, his stepfather for over 10 years, to take him shopping for the equipment that he needs. But also sad.
I sometimes wonder how losing their dad so young has shaped the young adults my children have become. A wide body of research has been conducted on the impact of losing a parent before age 12, most to identify the best ways to support them in the years that follow the loss. However, little is reported about the long-term effects, partly because of the difficulty to conduct such research. After all, how do I compare the emotional wellness of my children to the people they would have been, had their father lived and raised them?
I raised our grieving children while I myself grieved my husband and the family we were supposed to be. Jeremy had been home for most of the 14 months from his diagnosis to his death, and I often say that when he died, our kids went from having two parents to having half of one. I definitely struggled but in retrospect, these are the things that worked for our little group:
- Closeness — my parents joked there was no need for the kids to have bedrooms since all three slept in my bed with me
- Safe outlets for anger — I encouraged the kids to hit a tree with a stick or break plates to let it out. And I hit and broke along with them.
- Community — while my first instinct was to lock myself away, we participated in multi-family gatherings like weekend hikes and school-related parties and outings.
- Normalcy — interaction with other kids who have dealt with something similar. We created Jeremy’s Circle, which throws family fun days for families coping with cancer or cancer loss in their young families in part for this purpose.
- Respect the grief — this took longer to learn. By accepting and dealing with grief flare-ups — sometimes unexpected and sometimes triggered by milestones — instead of resisting or denying them, we return to balance more quickly.
Seeing the emotional parents dropping off their kids at the army pick-up point, I know that these milestones are happy, scary, and complicated for nearly everyone, not just me. And as my kids stretch their limbs and grow into adulthood, I watch and watch-over them for both Jeremy and me. It is a privilege I cherish every day.