When we are parents, the crises in our lives aren’t just ours, but our children’s, especially when they are young or still living with us. Losing my husband to Amyotrophic Lateral Sclerosis (ALS, also known as Lou Gehrig’s disease) made very clear that my children were depending on me to guide them through the greatest crisis of their young lives.
Christmas was nearing and we had a three- and eight-year-old delighted about the season, when my husband Bob made an appointment for a twitch in his arm that simply would not stop. At the time, it seemed to me an odd reason to make a doctor’s appointment. The furthest thing from my mind was that a simple twitch in my 6’5 240-pound muscle-bound husband’s arm could mean he was terminally ill, but he was. Within three weeks, he was diagnosed with ALS.
Some crises are temporary and some are permanent, but all families deal with crisis, and all parents must make decisions about parenting during one. The crisis for me was that my husband, the children’s father, was dying. Within that major crisis, there were a series of daily crises. The muscle wasting disease progressed so rapidly that within a few months, Bob could no longer do dishes or laundry, help clean the house, or pick up the children. Within five months, he stopped teaching his philosophy classes at university. Within seven, he was unable to walk. Within ten, we lost him.
Bob once told me that his grandmother often said, “Don’t worry that your children are listening to you, worry that they are watching you.” Young children are particularly insightful about body language. After all, before they can speak, their lives depend on it. My children were taking physical and emotional cues on how to not only manage daily life with a father who was quickly deteriorating in abilities and would eventually die, but how to survive losing one of the most important people in their lives.
Some crises are temporary and some are permanent, but all families deal with crisis, and all parents must make decisions about parenting during one.
Twelve things I learned about parenting during a crisis:
- Your body will say what you are not saying, so don’t lie.
- Tell the truth in the language and with the details appropriate for the age of the child.
- Telling the truth may include temporary omissions; children let us know when they are ready for more information.
- Children want to help. Include them in decisions and tasks that are age appropriate.
- Make individual time for each child to ask questions and express emotions.
- Listen to your children, but also watch them. Their bodies will also tell you what they are feeling even if, or when, they can’t.
- If they don’t want to talk when you do, let them know you will be there when they do want to talk. Let them decide when to share.
- Express your own emotions openly and honestly. When you do, you are giving your children permission to do the same.
- When you make mistakes, admit to those mistakes, and apologize. It’s okay. It is a crisis after all, and your children are watching and learning from you.
- Take care of yourself first. While this goes against the instinct of many parents and is often considered selfish, the opposite is true. If you are okay, your kids are okay. Let me say that again: If you are okay, your kids are okay. Put on your own oxygen mask first. If you are not okay, no one you care for is going to be okay.
- Remind yourself and your children that everything, everything changes, and whatever particular moment you are all in, it too will pass. Things will change. They won’t be the same. Things will never be the same. But you can go on and, with each other, you can eventually thrive again.
- Say I love you every chance you get.
Deirdre Fagan is an author and professor and coordinator of creative writing at Ferris State University. Her memoir, Find a Place for Me: Embracing Love and Life in the Face of Death, was published in 2022. Her recent book, Phantom Limbs, released in October 2023. For more information visit www.deirdrefagan.com.