Parenting Without Parents

It’s one of those situations in life we dread — the death of our parents.

It can be especially difficult when we have our own kids. Who will we go to now for parenting advice? Who will the children look up to when the grandparents are gone?

Thirty-nine-year-old Angela Pelosi-Harrison, a mother of four, was 15 years old when her mother was first diagnosed with breast cancer in 1991. Her mother beat the cancer and went into remission.

Then it came back. This time, 12 years later, Pelosi-Harrison had her own family and realized just how serious the cancer was.

“She had been in remission so long it didn’t occur to me she could have cancer again. When it came the second time, I had three kids and one on the way. This time it became very real that I could lose her,” she said.

Pelosi-Harrison’s mom survived the cancer again. But it came back a third time in 2014. She didn’t have another fight in her, so she opted out of treatment.

Pelosi-Harrison was in nursing school in Michigan at the time, and spent weekends driving to New York to see her mother.

“I went to school three days a week, had two shifts at the hospital for clinical hours, and then Friday I would drive 12 hours to New York get there in time for bed, spend Saturday with my mom and leave Sunday morning to go home and do it all over. It was very stressful,” she said.

Pelosi-Harrison’s mother died within eight weeks of her last diagnosis, in November 2014.

A ‘Full-Circle’ Moment

Claire Bidwell Smith, a therapist who specializes in grief, said the death of a parent can be a “full circle moment” for an adult who has children.

“So often, we are expected to handle it gracefully because we are adults and our parents are older,” she told LifeZette. “But the loss of a parent can be an enormous blow to your family. Knowing that they won’t be there to watch your children grow older and be part of your future can shift everything about what you envisioned for your life.”

She would know. She lost both of her parents before she became a mother at the age of 31.

Bidwell Smith has described the experience of motherhood without parents as daunting, but healing. She has written about her journey and exploration of the afterlife two nonfiction books, “The Rules of Inheritance” and “After This: When Life is Over Where Do We Go?”

Unfortunately, she said, there aren’t a lot of resources available on the topic of parenting without parents. But there are a number of things people can do to guide themselves through the process.

Keep the Memories Alive

Incorporate the memories of the lost grandparent into the children’s lives. Hanging photos around the house and acknowledging birthdays and other anniversaries are helpful. Also, carry on traditions, like cooking beloved recipes, and other rituals that were important to that person.

Pelosi-Harrison, whose mother died before Christmas, honors her mom through charitable giving.

“We thought it was funny that we kept finding things she would love now that she’s dead, that we could never seem to find when she was alive,” she said.

“So the kids and I bought things that we thought she would love and donated them to a shelter for abused women. On the gifts we attached a note in honor of a woman who was a fighter and had a heart for those who struggle, and would want each and every woman to know that she is valuable. We hoped the gift may be a bright spot during the holidays.”

Write Letters

If you are in the position of being able to say goodbye to a dying parent, one helpful technique used by therapists is to write a letter to them. Pelosi-Harrison said this helped her family prepare for her mother’s eventual death.

“I wrote a letter and encouraged my kids to do the same. In it I said thank you, I’m sorry, and goodbye. It gave each of us an outlet for the things we might regret if we never said them,” she said. “I gave it to her a few weeks before she died because I never knew when the last time would be. She loved it. I think it meant as much to her as it did to me.”

Bidwell Smith suggests other forms of writing, too, that help with the healing process.

“Make space in your life for the feelings that will arise by writing about them. Write letters to your children that they can read when they’re older. Or write a letter to your deceased parent, telling them about your new experiences — the good, the bad and the ugly,” she advises on

Talk Openly With Children

It may be instinctual to not get “too heavy” on the subject of the loss of a grandparent, but Bidwell Smith recommends talking openly and honestly with children.

“Explain the death in simple terms, appropriate to your child’s age, and don’t be afraid to let them see you mourn,” Bidwell Smith said. “Modeling sad emotions will help them feel open to embracing their own feelings, both in this instance, and in the future.”

In Pelosi-Harrison’s case, her four children, who ranged in age from 17 to 10 when her mother died, had the opportunity to talk with their dying grandmother before she passed away.

“There was a lot of sadness, but they know we don’t live forever. My mother was a Christian and so she told all the kids she was headed for heaven,” said Bidwell Smith. “It seemed to put all of them at ease to think that she would live on happily elsewhere."

Tap into Outside Support

Turning to family and friends is valuable for the grieving adult child, but Bidwell Smith also suggests seeing a therapist who specializes in grief or using support groups to help cope with the loss. She also recommends the book “Parentless Parents” by Allison Gilbert, which helps guide people through this specific experience.

For children who are having a hard time with death, there are a number of excellent resources out there. The National Alliance for Grieving Children offers tools for helping a child or teen cope with loss. It also lists a directory of bereavement camps for children, teens and young adults across the country.

Another good resource is the Dougy Center, based in Oregon, which helps grieving children through peer counseling. It provides free materials and training nationwide. It also has resources for finding support groups in your area.

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