Email: Homeschooling through grief

Homeschooling through Grief

Hi Julie-

I am really struggling with the recent death of my Mom. She has been ill off and on for the past few years and my 9 year old son Sam and I have spent much time traveling out to Vancouver from Calgary to care for her in that time. We recently returned from spending 5 weeks caring for her as she died. I am extremely weary and worn out. My poor son spent most of those 5 weeks watching (crap) TV and playing computer games. (He is a right-brained learner and a late reader.)

Now that we are home I’ve been expecting ‘big things’ from myself in terms of ‘getting back on track’ with our homeschooling. I’m burnt out. We fortunately have a very loose HSing rhythm–based largely on your Brave Writer Lifestyle so it is rather gentle anyway, but I still just don’t have much left at this point to give to him. Do you have any experience with grief in this way? Any words of wisdom for me/us?

many thanks,

Hi Kelly.

First: hugs. Grief is such a strange thing. You can be perfectly calm at a memorial service and then burst into tears in the supermarket line. You feel energetic from a good night’s rest, but can’t remember phone numbers. Your brain feels scrambled. Sometimes you’re living under water, all actions slow motion and blurry, hard work, yet the pain is dull not sharp. Then guilt jumps you and you wonder why you can’t pull yourself together to get things done when you’ve already cried your tears and the event that triggered the grief was so long ago (whatever amount of time that is: six hours, four weeks, one year).

Homeschooling under those conditions is grueling. You feel responsible yet unable. It happens to school teachers too. My American Literature teacher in 11th grade lost his fiance in a freak tidal wave on the California coast. It derailed our class for the rest of the year. He spent one session telling us the vivid details of what happened to her, through his tears. From that day on (early fall), he never did get himself together. We limped our way through The Great Gatsby, Steinbeck and Hemingway without much insight or clearly defined writing projects. He missed many classes. Yet we survived. He did too.

One benefit to homeschooling is that you literally are in a house. Taking breaks, napping, crying in the bathroom are more viable than in a school setting. Remember that. Give yourself a break. Additionally, if you’re grieving the loss of someone in the family dear to you (as you are Kelly), chances are your kids are too. They can understand if you say, “I need this morning to just lie down and rest because I’m sad.”

I’ve been through one of the toughest years of my life (2009). My grief was not induced by death, but it’s been a process of loss anyway. I can’t say I survived it well, but I will share with you a few things I know about living with grief and adjusting homeschool to that unhappy rhythm.

“You can’t cheat the dark gods.”

If you’re sad, you’re sad. Don’t pretend not to be or it will squirt out in irritability or anger when one of your kids spills the orange juice or giggles too loudly. If you feel blank and unfocused, chances are supporting a rigorous routine will elude you. Then you will heap guilt on your already weary spirit. Start by recognizing that you’re in a process that will take some time to get through. Acknowledge your feelings, in a journal if nothing else, and find ways to slow down the pace of life to accommodate your sadness.

Get a support system.

Don’t rely on your kids to talk to you or to help you through the blues. Pick a friend you can call any time of day or night. Then talk to that person. Or if you prefer, create an email dialog with someone who understands your pain. Exchange emails. Don’t keep your emotions in. Find an outlet of support. (Hint: Husband may not be the best person for this if he is going through a similar grieving process.)

Pace yourself.

This is when it helps a lot to go back to basics. What aspects of homeschool are most nurturing to all of you? What can you do with your kids that is the lowest stress? I found that reading aloud was a great way to stay on track and to be restful. I also liked using DVDs and the computer for some of our education. I relied more on tutors and group learning (co-op) so that I wasn’t in charge of so much. Remember: you can catch up next year. No need to press too hard this year.

Go vanilla.

This is not the year for glitzy memorable unit studies complete with parties and field trips. Think 3 R’s. How can you keep reading, ‘riting and ‘rithematic going? Let history and science slide (if your kids are not in high school). If they are in high school, rely more on self-study and movies, group learning and tutors (if you can). Recognize that sometimes just keeping up with the basics is about all you can muster, but it is enough. Some years, it’s more than enough. Teatimes are one way to keep a routine that is nurturing. See if these can continue to be in your weekly lifestyle without too much stress.

Let them watch crap TV and play computer games.

I know, I know. That sounds so cynical. Here’s something I know from experience. Kids learn because that’s what they do. I’ve discovered from having been through a rough year myself that my kids have learned stuff I never taught them from Seinfeld episodes, from reality TV, from music (spending big quantities of time listening to and copying lyrics). Your kids need space to recover too, so let them do some of these “lesser forms of learning” without guilt. Remember the summers of your youth when you vegged out all day watching game shows or old movies? It’s okay. They’ll be okay. A little bit of learning combined with a lot of technology and TV for a period of time (a season) may be the easiest way to recover from such a blow as losing your mother. You’ll all get restless and sick of that lifestyle when your energy revives. You will. Trust it.

Deliberately take time for you.

Get away from the house, the family, your responsibilities. If you can spend time each week alone at a library or in nature or at a spiritual center, do it. I go to church alone (my kids go to a different church). In warm weather, I take time after church to go to a look out over the Ohio river. I read, journal, sit quietly, and watch coal barges float by. In the cold weather, I ski each week. Be good to you. Restore yourself. Love yourself.

Evaluate your recovery not by days or weeks,
but by months and quarters.

Change your measurements to longer spans of time. If you get a writing project done per quarter or maybe per semester, be glad. Affirm what you do. Ignore what you don’t do.

Over time, you’ll heal. You’ll know you’re healing because your energy will rebound. As it does, add in some of the missing pieces. But don’t be afraid to throw stuff out or to have a month where you lapse. Grief isn’t linear. It’s cyclical. You can get a lot of energy back and then one visit from family can send you back into the spiral. And of course, if you find that your grief turns into depression, you know (I’m sure!) to get professional help. Therapy has helped me tremendously and sometimes anti-depressants are the difference between drowning and swimming to safety.

Here’s hoping that each day gets a little better for you, just as the sun’s rays are lengthening a little bit every evening.

Be Good to You: Self Care Practices for the Homeschooling Parent

11 Responses to “Email: Homeschooling through grief”

  1. Clay says:

    Hi Julie,

    Thank you for sharing these providentially, timely thoughts.

    We too are homeschooling through grief after almost a year of taking care of my mother-in-law who moved in with us while she battled pancreatic cancer. The cancer took her life less than a year from diagnosis. She died in our home in August. We would want to point out that this too is home schooling in ways that could never be taught anywhere other than home on how to love someone who is chronically ill, how to suffer, how to die, how to weep, how to find grace and hope in the middle of pain and how God is gracious and faithful through it all.

    We have and are finding tremendous encouragement, practical help and understanding through the things we are learning through a Grief Share group. We would highly commend Grief Share to anyone suffering grief through death (

    May God lavish grace on you,


  2. Mary G says:

    Dear Kelly,
    Sending my sympathies and hugs to you! Julie’s advice is right on and so well said. I wish that I had the forethought to heed that advice during my mom’s illness and death in 2003. I pounded through homeschooling and schedules while taking care of her in my home and my boys were YOUNG! I missed many moments with my mom for the sake of me keeping my schedule ugh!.
    You do need to take care of yourself first in whatever way feels good. I fell pretty hard after my mom’s death, she was my last parent as well, and it effected my marriage for a time too. I needed space and time. Maybe your son doesn’t have to watch crap TV, but maybe you two can watch the many funny and/ or inspiring movies and documentaries that are out there. Curl up in a soft blankie with snacks and a movie.
    Hang in there! Take the proverbial one day at a time. You are not alone! The homeschooling journey is about the long term and not just this year….

  3. Melissa F. says:


    I love your comments on grief. Thank you.

    My main response is just to be gentle. Some time off is fine, then incorpoate a little school back in. Save the hard stuff for later if you can.

    Embrace your family and their emotional needs, including your husband.

    Two and a half years after grief hit our lives, and some things are just getting back to normal. Some not yet. That said, it has still been quality family time, and my children have learned and grown. Just agendas sometimes get thrown out the window.

    My prayers for all of our families.-Melissa Fisher

  4. Mary says:

    Dear Julie,

    Today I opened one of the emails I get from you, but don’t usually have time to read. The title caught my eye. How I wish I had gotten encouragement such as your kind words four years ago.

    I was a new breast cancer patient at the time and in my 13th year of homeschooling. I sent out emails to try to locate support for HS moms with Cancer and was told there were none. It would have helped me so much as your words ring so true to me even today. The guilt does come with the inability and it is not good to feel so overwhelmed.

    We are doing okay. I had two left in school at the time and one has now graduated and moved on to college. I just regret not being able to do all for these two that I had done schooling my first two. I think your words of wisdom would have been a great help then.

    Thank you for taking the time to share this. It is much appreciated.

    God bless,

  5. Alison Kerr says:


    I think this is a very important topic. Thank you for writing about it.

    I agree with Clay, in the bigger picture, illness, death and grief bring really important lessons, lessons which can be learned much easier in the home than if kids are being sent off to school and trying to continue as usual.

    As in most things, seeking balance is an important component, as is being kind to oneself. Personally I find that gardening helps – there is comfort in a connection to the Earth and the seasons.

    Alison Kerr

  6. Kika says:

    When my mom was dying/after her death I was a mess – it was so painful. That was seven years ago. I feel for you. One idea could be to generate a “free-time” list of activities your son could do when you just need alone or rest time. It could include things like lego, magnet sets, certain CD roms, drawing… things that don’t demand much from you but that you’ll feel better about than “crap tv”.

  7. Julie,
    this is so timely for me. our dog got out of the house 3 months ago, and though we’ve heard no word on her, we’re still hoping the person who has her will get her back to us. of course, the not knowing is driving me crazy and i realized today, it’s a grieving process, though an open ended one. i wondered why i couldn’t get myself together to do anything – homeschool, write, even do the dishes.

    many thanks for helping me realize what’s going on.

    Michelle Gregory

  8. Carrie Gwaltney says:

    As usual, Julie, your words are full of wisdom and compassion. I needed to read this today even though I’m not currently going through any acute grief. Your wisdom is transferable to situations where there are some long-term issues that just wear a person down. My motto these days is “Just do the next thing.” Schooling my youngest isn’t the great learning adventure I’d hoped, but it’s where we are and we muddle through. We deal with motivation and personality differences, with burn-out and lack of alternatives, and try to find the positives. And there are many positives, especially when I remember that educating my child means a lot more than academics.

  9. Greta says:

    Hi Julie

    You don’t know how much I needed to read these words today. We buried my mother-in-law last week – exactly four weeks after she was diagnosed with cancer. We started back to school this week, but I am really struggling. We are just devastated by her loss. So thank you for your words of advice. I’ll be re-reading them often.

  10. kelli says:

    Thank you so much for these words. Trying to be supermom through overwhelming circumstances is impossible, and nearly killed me. I have felt so guilty for not being able to pull it together “FASTER” and for not putting my kids in public school (they all have health/learning issues that would make that also a disaster). Thank you for permission to not be supermom in all circumstances. Much needed grace.

  11. Melissa says:

    My son.s girlfriend passed away early this morning. I had reduced his schedule earlier in the week so he could visit her Tuesday and now deal wuth his feelings and grief. I appreciate the suggestions mentioned here. He’s in high school so I’d like to get him back on track, but taking mental health breaks have to be allowed.