'I couldn't contain my grief': Is it okay to cry in front of your kids?

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Supplied 

I've always cried easily. 

I often cry when I'm watching a sad movie, when I see an image portraying animal cruelty or when I'm feeling really overwhelmed.

I even started ugly crying in the middle of Target the other day when Whitney Houston's 'I will always love you' came blaring over the loudspeaker. 

Photo: Heidi Krause and her dad
Photo: Heidi Krause and her dad 

As a general rule, I like to do my big sobs alone in the car. 

There is something cathartic about turning up the volume on a power ballad, gripping the steering wheel and letting it all out in the safety of a soundproof vehicle. 

However, over the past 18 months, unfortunately I've been crying even more than usual.

You see, my dad had a terrible car accident in July 2019 and suffered a spinal injury which left him with quadraplaegia. For a while, we were hopeful he would recover. 

He was so determined to walk again. So positive and brave. 

For 10 months, I would race back and forth from the hospital or rehab to help care for him and cheer him on, while still trying to work, look after my little boys and basically, keep it all together.

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It broke my heart knowing he was lying there unable to move, feed himself or even use his phone - and yet I was powerless to change the situation. I would have done anything to make him okay. 

Tragically, there were too many obstacles in my dad's path and his injuries too catastrophic. 

Ten months after the accident, my dad died.

I was by his side as friends came and said goodbye at our family home. I watched on as my incredibly stoic mum lost her husband of 47 years. 

I held his hand and stroked his head as he took his final breath.

The whole ordeal has been, understandably, devastating - a slow protracted grief that began the day of the accident.  

And I have found myself unable to stop the tears spilling over in front of my beautiful boys on more occasions than I would have liked - unable to contain them to the car or shower.  

And then I started worrying about the potential impact this was having on them - was seeing me so upset, so often, harming them? Should I be trying hide my grief and sadness? 

According to child and educational psychologist Dr Andrew Greenfield, it's okay to let your kids see you cry. In fact, it can even be beneficial. 

"It's important for parents to show that they are human in front of their children," he reassures me. "I think its impossible to avoid feeling upset or frustrated in front of kids - even if you aren't shedding physical tears."

"Anyone who tries to shy away from that will come unstuck at some point - and the kids will get a huge shock when they realise parents aren't happy all the time."

However, it's not just important to show the emotion, but also to demonstrate strategies to cope with it.

Clinical psychologist Dr Kirrilie Smout from Developing Minds agrees and outlines a fairly compelling scenario to me. 

"If a child sees mum cry, and sees her get a hug from a friend or if they see Dad cry, and then say:  'I'm feeling pretty sad about X, I'm going to go for a walk to help myself feel better' -  and then seem to feel better, this helps teach them that we can manage emotions. "

Dr Greenfield often uses the analogy of an emotional thermometer, to help kids label different levels of anger or sadness.

"I often talk to kids about 'feeling uncomfortable'," he explains. "We may have these feelings of frustration and sadness but they will pass. And they aren't always a 10. We all learn to live with that - and we don't have to be upbeat and happy all the time." 

At the same time, it's advisable not to share absolutely everything or expose kids to 'prolonged and severe distress', depending upon the age and cognitive ability of the child. 

"When your kids see you being upset, it can teach them about resilience and problem-solving, but there needs to be a limit. Kids need to know that someone is in control."

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While my boys are only young, I still wanted them to know the truth about what happened to their grandad - and that sad, terrible things can and do happen sometimes. 

And I want them to know its okay to feel big emotions and for everyone - boys, girls, mums and dads - to cry.

My five-year-old caught me gazing mournfully at a photo of my dad the other day.. and he came straight up to me with all the wisdom he could possibly muster and said: "It's okay Mummy. I love you." 

And guess what? My tears started to flow.