I’m a single parent with sole responsibility for my two children. Their father left about five years ago, before they started school, and now has no contact with them. Initially, I did quite well after the split. I was able to support them through the breakup and they adapted fairly well. Recently, however, I have not been coping so well. My mother, who was my only real support, died last year and I feel I haven’t properly grieved for her as I have had to keep my family and my part-time job going. I now feel quite weary and overwhelmed.
My elder child has started to become very anxious and tearful and it was suggested that her emotions could be linked to mine. To help her, I have been very wisely and warmly advised, I must first help myself – get counselling or do something outside the home for myself. The trouble is that doing anything for myself seems impossible. I have no free time and little spare cash. I have a network of friends who can help out when I really need it, but I don’t want to burden them unless it is an emergency.
I was never close to my mum, as she wasn’t nurturing, but she adored her grandchildren and they adored her. I am quite shocked by how hard her death hit me, given our difficult relationship. My dad is still alive but not in my life and hasn’t been for most of my adulthood.
I love my children and, for the most part, really enjoy my life with them, but I fear that our closeness may be making us spiral together and it could be problematic for them as they hit their teenage years.
I would say this is an emergency. You are deserving enough to have friends who can help out: use them. I doubt they would see helping you as a burden and when you have regained your equilibrium – and that day will come – you will be in a position to help them.
I think part of the issue is that you were never properly nurtured yourself, so you now find it hard to do this as an adult. I have been reading a lot about grief lately and one of the things that I have realised is that, if you have had a difficult relationship with a close family member, grieving for them can be more problematic than if you got on well – all those lost opportunities for a better relationship, all those “what ifs?”. This can take people by surprise.
I consulted family therapist Caroline Wells, of the Association for Family Therapy and Systemic Practice (aft.org.uk). The first thing she remarked on was what a lot you had been through. She said: “There’s an overwhelming sense of loss in your letter. You are doing amazingly well given the challenging circumstances.”
I second that. I asked Wells, why now? Why is it that you seem to have been coping well and now feel as you do? She pointed out that we have levels of tolerance, but that, after a while, “When you start stacking things up, that resilience gives in”. It is like carrying heavy shopping – you can do it for a while but after a bit, it gets too heavy.
Wells also asked if your elder child was about to go to secondary school. If so, she may be worried about the transition. “The change to secondary school can be a struggle, especially if you have something else going on,” she said. Your elder child may also be missing her grandma – and worried about you. I wonder if she sees grief as a “grown-up” emotion and so her feelings are coming out in different ways – ways that she thinks are more “OK” for her?
“Your daughter’s emotions may be linked to yours,” says Wells, “but that may not be the whole story. I think you need to acknowledge that you are both struggling in your own separate ways. You are grieving separately, but your strength will be in making some link.”
We also wondered how the younger child was doing?
A great way for you all to talk about grandma – and start to process feelings – might be to make a memory book of her. Put in photographs and write down things that you remember about her. Perhaps do a family tree in the book. Don’t worry if you cry. You will eventually stop.
Wells thought that you should “prioritise yourself. Go to your GP to make sure you have no underlying health needs and get on a list for counselling.” I know services and resources vary hugely, but start the process. Sometimes just admitting to “someone in authority” that you need help can be a significant first step. If you want to go privately (it doesn’t have to be that expensive), look at the website of the Association for Family Therapy given above. There are also free resources – see links below, for you and the children.
Wells also suggested that if your mother died in a hospital or hospice, you could see if there are counsellors there (even a year later). “As part of the healing process, you could think about writing a letter to your mum. Perhaps this could be shared with someone close in a meaningful way.”
Writing a letter you will never send may sound silly, but it can be amazingly cathartic.
Useful organisations for you and the children include:
cruse.org.uk, winstonswish.org.uk, youngminds.org.uk
This article first appeared in The Guardian Family section on 30 July 2016.