Exactly two years ago today, my Dad unexpectedly died from pancreatic cancer.
I wrote a blog post at the time about how my children and I adapted our homeschool routine to the requirements of “real life” while we caregived him in our home during his illness and death. What followed were two years of living daily with grief and continually adapting our lives and routines to accommodate its ebb and flow.
Unfortunately, our loss did not end there. In May of this year, my mother was diagnosed with stage four colon cancer. Her late stage diagnosis caught all of us off guard – she had always been the epitome of health. We had virtually no warning signs.
My children and I spent three and a half months by her side. Two of those months we were in a hospital, at her bedside, playing games with her when she was still strong enough and deriving lessons from the environment around us in whatever ways we could. First and foremost, our goal was to spend as much time with her as possible, but still – while doing that – we managed to transform an overwhelmingly hard situation into a daily homeschooling adventure.
The next month and a half we were with her in her home, slowly and heartbreakingly watching her cancer take greater hold.
I was not at all ready for her passing, despite knowing it was inevitable and that her cancer was untreatable. There is just no way (at least not that I have found) to prepare for the loss of someone you love so profoundly; someone who is so vital to your existence.
My mind and heart shut down even now when I try to conceive of the empty world I now live in … which brings me to living with grief. How do we do it? Each of us will inevitably face great loss at some point, so how do we – particularly as homeschoolers – adapt our day-to-day lives to allow space for grieving while also maintaining a healthy environment for our children? And how also do we support our children through their own grief, when they have even less social support than we do?
As homeschooling families – and in my case, as a stay-at-home-mom with no work commitments outside of the house – we are granted time to be creative and present with our grief in a way that would not be possible were our lives dictated by an employer and/or school system.
And although being with children day-in and day-out can complicate the process of finding alone time, being available for bereaved children as their grief waxes and wanes is a great gift to both them and you. Children are often forgotten in the grieving process – they are so resilient, so able to find joy in little things each day that it is easy to forget they are also hurting – and the flexibility that homeschooling can provide allows ample space and time to be present with them as they heal.
Here are a few ways I am personally attempting to meld my all-encompassing grief with our homeschooling life:
- I talk about my parents frequently – I tell stories to the kids about my childhood and remind the kids of fun times we shared. These stories come up naturally each day, triggered by anything and everything. The key is that instead of reminiscing by myself, I turn my memories into engaging stories for my children, bringing my parents back to life for small moments and hopefully reinforcing my children’s personal memories so that they will carry my parent’s love and influence forward into adulthood.
- My children and I made a special space together – an altar of sorts – where we set out pictures of my parents and special items that remind us of them. This is a great space for the kids to put drawings they’ve made, letters they’ve written, gifts they’ve created, and anything they come across (feathers, rocks, toys, photos …) that remind them of their grandparents.
- I outwardly express my emotions – if I’m sad, I cry. If I think of a funny time I had with one of my parents, I laugh and share it. If I find myself overwhelmingly angry at having lost both of my parents at what feels like such a young age, I talk about my hurt feelings.
- Perhaps even more importantly, I stop and listen whenever my children want to share what they are feeling, or just want to talk about their Grandma and Grandpa. I stop anything I am doing to give them my full attention, and if possible, later I write down what they say in their journals. They need to process and move through their complex emotions just as much as I do, so I encourage all forms of communication from them (drawing, writing, talking, singing, reenacting events …). And since when they are older they might want more details about their relationships with their grandparents, about how they felt when they died, and about the experiences they shared, I make it a priority to record their thoughts when I can.
- I’ve incorporated a long-term grieving project into our homeschool routine. Each week we have a celebration where we do something that my mom in particular loved to do. We take bubble baths, have tea parties, write letters, visit beaches, work on our fairy garden, etc. And then we write about it on a private blog just for our closest friends and family. It is an incredibly helpful way to include my mom in our daily life and to share our thoughts and feelings with other people who deeply love and miss her. My kids help me pick out the photos we share, and my eldest, who is nine and can type, is working on blog posts herself.
- I make sure we are out-and-about in the world somewhat, but I keep our schedule simple. This is the trickiest balance for me. I really don’t have what it takes to see people often right now – I neither want to speak about my loss and what I am feeling or speak about inconsequential topics. So all of my social interactions feel strained – they are either shallow and uncomfortable or deep and uncomfortable. I know this will change over time – I will inevitably get better at putting on my public face and interacting with the world – but for now I focus on being home with the kids, attending a few classes with them, and only doing drop-off playdates in order to minimize the need for me to socialize.
I know that some people, when dealing with intense grief, would let go of a homeschooling routine altogether for awhile. Often, this may be necessary. In my personal situation, were I to have chosen this route, my children would have been “unschooled” since late 2014, when our grieving (after my husband’s car accident) first began. And since my children thrive on projects and activities with clear goals, it doesn’t work for us to fill more than occasional days with free time and open-ended play.
Clearly, there is no recipe for living with grief or maintaining a homeschooling routine through it. These are just a few tips from my personal experience of raising young children while simultaneously being sidelined by profound loss. Grief is an unpredictable process, it lasts far longer than one would expect, it changes a person fundamentally and permanently, and we each move through it at our own pace and in our own way.
One last tip: for me, writing has been an immensely helpful tool. When I write I am allowed the sensation of feeling in control of my life again – things seem to make sense and be manageable while I am putting them down on paper – so I wake up no later than 6 a.m. each morning now in order to do this and feel ready for the day. Writing also helps with homeschooling – I find I am so distracted each day (I routinely do things like pour milk through my coffee filter instead of water, make dinner and forget to put it in the oven, etc.) that it is imperative for me to write lists of what I hope to accomplish in school, who I need to email or call, what appointments need to be made, and so forth. I can no longer trust myself to keep ongoing lists in my head with all the grief work my mind and heart are constantly engaged in doing.
I hope these tips help you in some way. I know that one day I will be on the other side of this process – that I will be a friend trying to support others while they are grieving – and I hope that by sharing as much as possible now, while I am submerged in sadness and loss, I will help my friends know how to help me and I will also learn how to be a better support to those around me when their time for grief comes.