A child guides a parent through grief

Six months after my husband died, I threw a joint birthday party for my sons, Trevor and Colin, who turned 7 and 6 in the same month. As they closed their eyes and blew out their candles, I knew they were wishing for their dad to be back, despite knowing it would never come true. 
Barbara Allen and her four children
Barbara Allen and her four children salute their father, Louis Allen.
Louis Allen was killed while on active duty in Iraq

As they opened their eyes, I saw them search the crowd for me.  They caught my eye as I peered through the tiny tendrils of candle smoke, and smiled. I managed a quick return smile before ducking back behind my camera, anxious to hide the onslaught of tears.

Parenting in the best of times can be stressful. Having a partner - husband or wife - to share triumphs and defeats, alleviates a lot of that stress. Bouncing thoughts, stories and ideas off our spouse is reassuring; having someone to share in the trivial but monumental milestones of daily life, helps us get through the day.  And you know there is back-up, a safety net. 

Click here to learn how to answer your child's questions about death.

For the widowed parent, however, that safety net is lost. Losing my husband, Lou, thrust me into a world I no longer cared to be a part of; in spite of the extraordinary support of family, friends and complete strangers, it was ultimately my children who reeled me back into life. All the while I thought it was I guiding them, when many times they were my inspiration.

A life changing conversation over dinner

Stirring pasta while Trevor worked on his homework, I got lost in my thoughts. Trevor’s question brought me back. 

“What’s for dinner?”

“Chicken nuggets and pasta,” I answered.

“Mom, when are you going to make a whole chicken again,” he replied. “It's been a while and it was my favorite.”

Fighting back tears, I explained that I just didn't know if I could ever make roasted chicken again because it was dad's favorite meal. I honestly didn’t think I could bear to do it without him.

“But mom, you can't go the rest of your life without making a chicken,” Trevor urged. “Just because dad died doesn't mean we don't get to ever do that again! You have to make a chicken again!”

Looking at my son's face, straining to fight back his own tears, I wondered what I must look like now – unkempt hair dangling listlessly, saggy t-shirt riddled with stains and mismatched slippers on my feet.   It was at that moment that a bolt of clarity struck.

Feeling like you can't cope, these great resources will see you through. 

My son’s words became my mantra

Trevor’s words, “You have to make a chicken again!” became my mantra. The chicken symbolized all the things I once did and dreamed of doing again, and I knew I had to find my way through the weight of anguish; stop just existing and start living again.

The next day, Trevor eyes widened as he walked into the kitchen after school. The smell of freshly roasted chicken hung heavily in the air. “You did it, you made the chicken,” he shouted. I shared a laugh with my son and a few tears of joy. I was proud of myself for making that chicken and taking the first step towards normalcy. As our family sat around the table for dinner that night, I finally realized things would never be like they used to be, but I could still live a “normal” life.

My child brought me back

In the years following my husband’s untimely death, I have met countless other widowed parents.  We share one common denominator: moving on alone through the now terrifying waters of parenthood. Sometimes we guide our children and more often than not, our children guide us.


Barbara Allen is the widow of 1st Lt. Louis Allen, who was killed while on active duty in Iraq. She lives in the Hudson Valley with her four children and her boyfriend and is actively involved with organizations serving our troops and their families.

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