THE BLOG
06/02/2014 06:11 pm ET Updated Aug 02, 2014

When Parenting Breaks Your Heart

Sarah MacLaughlin, LSW

Once you are a parent, your pores open up and more of life's stuff gets inside you. You can't screen out the horror stories about what happens to little children because there is a little child on your lap now, and you can't help thinking, Oh my God, what if that happened to him?

I've always been a kid person. I wanted to be a mom for a long time before I became one. But I didn't know how tired I'd be. Or how angry I'd get. I had no idea that the stakes would feel so high and the losses would loom so big. Parenting is scary and painful -- it breaks your heart.

A while ago we buried a family pet in the backyard. We were open about it. We petted the dead cat and put him in a box and talked about the Tenth Good Thing About Barney. This happened to fall about a week from the anniversary of the death of my grandmother. I didn't make the connection until I was woken that night by the sound of my almost 5-year-old crying next to me. He had crawled into my bed and was shaking and sobbing. He could hardly talk and I was instantly alarmed. I felt his head for a fever, but he was not hot.

"What is it, Bubba?" I asked.

"W-w-when, y-y-you die, I w-w-won't be able to s-s-see you anymore." I could barely make out the words through his choking sobs.

I wanted to say, "NO! No, that WILL NOT HAPPEN. I will always be with you, and you don't have to feel this pain because life is rainbows and silliness and birthday cake and fun!"

But that would have been a lie.

"Oh sweetie, I know." I shook off my sleepiness and looked him in right in his sweet face.

"M-m-mom," he blubbered, "Wh-wh-wh-hen you are d-d-d-dead, I will put up s-s-s-so many p-p-pictures of you."

I burst into tears. I burst into tears every time I read that and remember how sad he was that night. My boy. He woke up wondering how he will cope when I die. He felt this deep sorrow and he came to me for support. So I gave it.

"Oh, I know, I am so, so sorry." I hugged him tightly and we cried. "Pictures are a really good idea. I know this is so hard to think about."

He cried hard and I said nothing to talk him out of it.

After a bit, I suggested that we go sit in the rocking chair in his room. He asked for tissues and curled up on my lap. We sat together in the glow of his red rocket ship night-light. We rocked.

My husband got out of bed and went downstairs. That got him thinking.

"I want Daddy to die first because I love you more, Mommy," he stated.

"I know, that's OK," And because I knew there was so much more pain underneath that statement, I reminded him, softly, "You will miss Daddy too when he dies."

"I know," he wailed, "When Daddy dies, who will make the stir-fry?!"

I held him. He cried. He had started to grieve the eventual loss of us.

Losing your parents. That's a scary thing to think about. It's a scary part of life. I imagine that he feels less scared now. He felt some hard feelings. He wasn't alone. He felt things and survived.

I can only hope that he will be more prepared than I was for what Glennon Doyle of Momastery calls The Brutiful Parts of Life (the brutal amd the beautiful). I love this approach so much. Because we tend to numb out. We try to avoid the lows in life and aim for the highs, the only happy and sunshiny places. That's what I did. Until I could stand to feel grief and sadness and terror, I was miserably shielded from both the beauty and brutality in life. You can't block one without blocking the other.

Some day I will actually die, and my sweet son will lose me. He will be split open by grief. I only hope we have shown him that this is right and OK. I hope we will have succeeded in helping him build emotional competence. If he has practiced a thousand times with smaller pains and losses, he will be ready.

It will still hurt, but he will be ready.

This was originally posted at sarahmaclaughlin.com and was part of Momastery's Messy, Beautiful Life series.