In our last Blog post, we talked about grief in isolation and the impact Covid 19 restrictions have placed on families managing serious illness and bereavement. Today we take a look at what it really means to ‘draw on support networks’ – a common piece of advice offered to anyone facing difficulties, and often easier said than done.
Serious illness and bereavement are a time of immense practical and emotional upheaval; we may or may not have strong support networks around us when we face these challenges. With the additional challenges posed by a global pandemic, it’s not surprising that many families are feeling more disconnected from their support networks than ever.
In this Blog post we will consider who and what can help. This may mean forging new connections and relationships, or redefining existing ones.
Asking for help can feel acutely uncomfortable for many people – some are shy or introverted, whilst others are used to feeling capable and in control, or being the ‘helper’, so switching roles can feel a challenge. We can’t always control what is offered, when, and by whom, but we can learn to communicate more accurately what we need – and learn to put in place boundaries around what we may or may not be ready for in terms of support offered.
If you are reading this because you would like to better understand how you can support someone else, we hope you too find some useful thoughts and advice.
When thinking about support networks, it is important to consider who is part of your child’s. These may overlap or be distinct from one another.
It is also important to remember you are both a key part of one another’s practical and emotional support.
Your young person's support needs
Recognise – First and foremost, parents and carers are usually the primary source of support, guidance and comfort for their children. It can help to make a note of what has changed both practically and emotionally for your family, and how you can make time to connect with one another. This may mean setting aside small chunks of time to ‘check in’ with each other, as well as drawing on outside support, so your young person is reassured that you are still looking out for them when life gets busy.
Connect – Try not to worry if you or your child begins to feel disconnected from each other due to the time constraints imposed by solo parenting and caring. Focus instead on planning time to reconnect over something light, such as a favourite film, bedtime story, a walk, or preparing a meal together. Talking about everyday things and being able to laugh together helps feelings of connection grow and paves the way for more serious conversations when required.
Acknowledge – Recognise and name your young person’s frustrations at the challenges and limitations they are experiencing. This should help them feel ‘seen’ and understood, strengthening the sense of connection and support between carer and child. We can’t take away someone’s unique challenges, but by showing empathy we can help them feel less alone.
Peer Support – Encourage your young person to connect with friends. They may do this readily, or you may be concerned that your child is more withdrawn or angry than usual, which is very normal under these circumstances. Actively hearing a parent say ‘why don’t you go and chill out [online] with friends for a bit?’ can help your young person see that you understand and care about their needs, and are there to gently remind them of these when they may be struggling with self-care.
For older children, it may be possible for them to build in some adult-free time in person. If it’s safe and appropriate, they could walk home from school with friends or meet outside 1:1 (Covid Tier System guidelines and weather permitting).
For younger ones, this can be trickier, but our families have told us their primary-aged children have enjoyed FaceTime with friends and gaming online when face to face playdates have had to be suspended.
Outside help – When thinking about who might step in to help with key childcare responsibilities, talk to your children and young people about which friends and extended family might be able to help and, if possible, ask their preferences. Explaining who is going to help with what can help allay anxieties and ensures your young person knows who they can go to with any questions or worries.
Occasionally it may be appropriate to seek some outside help for your young person, whether that is via key pastoral staff at school, or through other organisations like CAMHS (Child and Adolescent Mental Health Services) or with us here at SeeSaw. We have a list of further resources and services for young people on our website. Talk to your young person about how they are feeling and whether they would be open to further support, giving them a clear picture of what that might look like – that way they are more able to make an informed decision about what they feel ready to engage with.
Your own support needs
Recognise – Whether caring for a seriously unwell person, or experiencing bereavement, as a parent/carer, you will undoubtedly be absorbing many additional and unfamiliar tasks. Parents we have worked with often tell us that trying to recreate the important parts of their loved one’s role prior to serious illness or death can feel a huge responsibility. Whether that is managing finances, housework, or key caring responsibilities for children, taking on a new ‘job’ and trying to do it in their signature style can feel like an insurmountable task.
Realising that you can redefine a task or role and do it ‘your’ way can be incredibly liberating – whether that’s abandoning spreadsheets for pen and paper, if that’s your preferred way of recording things, or interchanging reading with your child to audiobook bedtime stories to give yourself a much-needed break some evenings. In short, it’s ok to do things differently going forward.
Making a list of the things you might ask for outside help with is a good place to start: school runs, dog walking, preparing meals, trips and visits, babysitting, financial planning, clearing and cleaning, and decorating or gardening are all things family, friends and neighbours may have skills in that they are prepared to lend in support, until you can find your feet in your ‘new normal’.
It can be surprising for others to see you doing things differently, and they may comment on this, but that shouldn’t stop you from placing yourself and your family’s needs at the centre of your decision-making.
Connect – As much as time alone to rest and process will be essential, try to balance this with time spent with your young person, family and friends, thinking carefully about what you can manage, when, and with whom.
Conversely, it can be hard to decline invitations or cancel plans at the last minute if you’re not feeling up to it, without feeling you’re potentially risking losing future offers of support. Remember that most people should understand, and you don’t owe anybody extensive explanations: ‘Thank you for the offer, I can’t on this occasion but please do ask me again in future,’ is enough. You may also want to offer an alternative: ‘That’s very kind, but I think we would find X most useful right now – is that something you could help me with?’
Acknowledge – If you are facing the challenges of lone parenting, remember you can outsource certain jobs: creating a ‘patchwork quilt’ approach to meeting your family’s needs helps identify practical and emotional support tasks that can be shared out beyond the immediate family unit. These can be stitched together to form a coherent whole, which may have been provided under one roof before.
Remember that this can include encouraging your young people to take responsibility for age-appropriate tasks, which will support their growing independence and sense of autonomy and capability – key concepts when developing the ability to be resilient in the face of challenge.
Peer Support – Never has the famous ‘it takes a village to raise a child’ parenting adage been more true, but managing this can be exhausting – is there someone in your circle who can coordinate your ‘to do’ list with incoming offers of support, whilst you’re busy managing the heavy work of grief?
As wonderful as offers of help are, there can be a fine line between useful support and feeling vulnerable, exposed and – and times – intruded upon or even judged by prospective ‘helpers’. The section ‘Connect’ above covers how to state your boundaries calmly and clearly.
Whether filtering offers of help, or reaching out to initiate, it’s worth considering ‘What do I still want to do myself? What feels important to me and my children?’ For example, offers of help with the school run may be extremely useful to some, but for others they may value that time getting out the house and connecting with their young person at the beginnings and ends of school days.
Similarly, if you are being offered prepared meals, it’s ok to ask for what you know will work for your family. That could mean sharing any allergies, dislikes and preferences, dishes you already have duplicates of, or even dishes that might have been your loved one’s ‘speciality’ and wouldn’t yet feel right to eat someone else’s version of.
Outside help – Many of our families tell us that having a few things to look forward to planned ahead in the calendar breaks time into more manageable chunks (especially when planning for school holidays). This can include time spent with friends and family for you or your young person independently of one another. This can give you both a bit of a break from the intensity of your shared grief, enabling you to have a little bit of space before reconnecting.
Lastly, don’t forget the power of talking to a non-judgemental neutral figure. Support from friends and family can often come with additional worries; talking through your thoughts and challenges to a professional from organisations such as your GP, Cruse, WAY, or SeeSaw can give you a safe space to let off steam and trouble shoot some solutions to common problems. Giving a professional a call doesn’t have to mean you’re ‘struggling’ – we are simply another tool in your kit to help you.