Forget "Being Strong" for the Children

img_0598 Rose Hill Cemetery, Cleburne Texas,  June 1993

"It's just not fair!"  I said through clenched teeth.  "IT...IS...JUST...NOT...FAIR!"  My 12-year-old son Christian and nine-year-old daughter Sarah stood dumbfounded on either side of me staring at me in unbelief.  Both of them looked terrified and as if they would rather be anywhere else in the world right now than standing next to their ranting father.

"It is just not fair!" I repeated as I stared at the grave markers of my 37-year-old wife Cindy and my two-year-old daughter Katie.  Tears were streaming down my face.

This is not how I had planned my family's first visit at the grave site to go just weeks after we had the double funeral.  I had been told that I needed to be strong for the children, and I took that to mean that I should not grieve in front of them.  The trip to the cemetery and seeing the fresh mounds of dirt where we had lowered my wife and daughter into the ground was just too much.  There was simply no way that I could not become emotional and mourn the losses that had profoundly changed my family and my life forever.…even if the sight of their father crying uncontrollably upset my children.

This is not how I had planned our lives to be.  I was supposed to grow old with my wife.  I was supposed to see Katie grow up, go to school, go to college, get married and have children.  My children should have their mother to nurture and encourage them in ways that only a mother could.  My children should be able to grow up with their sister Katie, protecting her and enjoying her as all big brothers and big sisters do.  This was more than just unfair.  This was more than unjust.  This was just damn wrong, but there was nothing I could do… only protest with every fiber of my being as I stood staring at their graves.

So much for being strong for the children.  So much for not crying or becoming emotional in front of them.  There was just no way that I could not express the honest, brutal, emotional turmoil going on inside of me.  There was just no way that I could not protest, even in front of my children, the unfairness of our losses.  There was just no way that I could not express how much I love and miss their little sister and their mother.

May 2013 marks the 20th anniversary of my family's losses.  Little Christian and little Sarah are not little anymore.  They're all grown up, successful and emotionally stable.  My expressions of grief in front of them since the beginning of our grief journey have not twisted or damaged their psyches.  Crying in front of them probably made them feel uncomfortable, but crying in front of them was inevitable.  Remembering and grieving over the deaths of their mother and sister was healthy for me, and I think it has benefited them in their grief journey also.

You see, if I had never grieved in front of my children that would've been abnormal..and creepy, to be honest.  If I had never cried or had an emotional outburst over the losses of their mother and their sister, it would send the wrong message to Christian and Sarah.  Uncomfortable as it may have been for them to see me grieve, my mourning let them know just how much I love their mother and their sister.  Not crying in front of them would make them wonder if I were some cold-hearted, insensitive man untouched by the deaths of his loving wife and his cherished child.

You see, the job of mourning parents is not to be strong for the children or for anyone else.  The job of a mourning parent is to show his or her children a role model of how a normal, healthy, adult Christian deals with the difficult times in life including the deaths of significant people.  The job of a mourning parent is to model healthy coping skills to teach children ways to handle their grief.  Healthy coping skills in dealing with losses early in life will help children to deal with later losses.  And there will be inevitable later losses.

Children cannot be protected from the "negative" experiences in life, especially death, dying and grief.  Mourning parents remember this: Children in grief need to learn from the adults around them that the expression of grief emotions is natural, healthy and healing.  Your job is not to be strong for the children.  Your job as a grieving parent is to be a role model of healthy grief and coping skills for your children to observe and from which to learn.

Written by Larry M. Barber, LPC-S, CT author of the grief survival guide “Love Never Dies: Embracing Grief with Hope and Promise”  available online at Amazon, Barnes & Noble or

The grief survival guide is also available in Spanish as “El Amor Nunica Muere: Aceptando el Dolor con Esperanza y Promesa” on

Larry is the director of GriefWorks, a free grief support program for children and their families in Dallas TX