No one dreams of dying before their children are grown. No parent envisions leaving their children before they reach milestones and become contributing, independent adults. Yet, sadly, tragically, it happens.

My mom died soon after I graduated from college. She and I were very close. We had many conversations as she was dying, some silly and some serious, about life and about death. She would not, perhaps more likely could not, accept the reality that she would never see me complete my education, find a career, fall in love, get married and become a mother.

I will share some strategies that I wish we had thought of then, as well as some strategies that I use now in my practice as a grief counselor.

Write letters for milestones such as birthdays, getting a driver’s license, graduations, careers, falling in love, weddings, marriage, and becoming a parent. I will use the example of taking the driver’s test:

  • Include a story from your own life experience at that time. I remember when I took my driver’s test. My Dad took me. He lectured me the whole way there…
  • Normalize the complex emotions of the experience. I was so nervous. I was worried that I would fail and never get get my license!
  • Include teachable moments or any words of wisdom that you wish to share. Driving is a big responsibility. Always focus, no texting and driving, and NEVER drive drunk!
  • End with a positive, supportive statement. You can do it. Be prepared. Take your time. Believe in yourself. I love you!

One of the most important things you can do is give your child permission to be happy. Tell them, and write them a letter reminding them, to laugh, play and love without guilt. Let them know that the best way for them to honor you is to live their life well: to have fun with friends, work hard in school, stay involved in what they love and take good care of themselves.

Let your child know that all feelings are okay. It takes great strength and courage to grow through grief. Grief is hard work and there is no formula or timeline that works the same for everyone. Each person will approach, manage and express grief differently. Help your child create a coping toolbox, which may include:

  • Tools for expression like a journal, sketchbook, watercolors, scrapbook materials, or clay.
  • A list of self-care strategies:
    • Recommendations for exercise, (DVD’s, gym membership, intramurals, etc.)
    • Guided imagery and meditations for relaxation,
    • Music for positive distraction
    • Age appropriate books on grief, (as well as a list of recommended books for future phases of life).
    • An address book filled with the names and contact information of trusted friends and family identified as good and supportive listeners. Also include the contact information for local resources available to support your child such as Hospice, a therapist, clergy, beloved teacher, and their primary care physician.

Remember, asking for and receiving help takes great self-awareness and courage. Normalize this idea: your child may have a tutor for academics, a coach for sports, a piano teacher for piano, and now a counselor for growing through difficult times. All of these people are there to help your child grow and develop skills and strategies to be their best.

Other strategies that promote growing through grief and remembering well:

  • Have quilts, pillowcases, or stuffed animals made out of swatches of your clothing for your child to have for comfort.
  • Create a memory box: Ask friends and family to write their favorite memories on paper and put them into the memory box to be read in the future. Decorate the box with photocopied pictures of great times shared, a family motto, inspiring quotes, etc. Include your own favorite memories,
  • Record a video of you talking about your hopes and dreams for your child as well as stories from your life, favorite memories, music, recipes, traditions, activities and hobbies.

It is completely understandable if you find yourself overwhelmed with the notion of implementing these strategies. What could be harder? Enlist the help of close friends, family members, a social worker, or counselor. These strategies will provide you and your loved ones some comfort during this most unimaginably painful time and you will leave behind a legacy of love, support, and memories.

Jennifer Stern

Jennifer Stern, LISW, graduated from the SSA Master of Arts program at the University of Chicago and has worked as part of private practice for over a decade. Her areas of focus include working with individuals and families on grief, loss, bereavement, and difficult life transitions resulting from illness, marital conflict, divorce, and other complicated, fractured relationships. Her focus as a cognitive behavioral therapist is to empower individuals to take meaningful and purposeful action to create desired change in their lives. She teaches clients about the power of choice, wise minded thinking, and productive communication strategies as stepping stones to healing and transformation.

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