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In a moving episode of the third season of "Queer Eye," viewers meet Rob Elrod, a 42-year-old single father, whose wife, Allison, had died two years earlier from breast cancer.
Elrod was struggling with grief and doing his best to raise his 3- and 5-year-old sons in the home he shared with his wife. When he meets the guys, it's clear little has changed since Allison's death.
Through the episode the "Fab Five" help Elrod move on — literally to a new house — while honoring Allison. The show highlights what it’s like parenting through grief and shares an important message: It’s OK to accept assistance.
“It is impossible for a child to lose a parent and not need outside help to heal from that,” Dr. Deborah Gilboa, a parenting expert and TODAY Tastemaker, told TODAY Parents.
She said asking for support doesn’t imply the parent is doing something wrong or isn't good enough. Looking for support for grief is like seeking medical attention.
“If your child broke a bone no matter how well they seem to be doing you would take them to see a specialist to help them heal cleanly so they can use it for the rest of their life,” she explained.
When children are very young, like Elrod’s children, they blame themselves for the death of a parent, even if their thoughts seem irrational.
“They feel guilty. Kids that age think everything is about them and it is their fault,” she said. “When adults stay stuck that way we can accidentally leave children in guilt and remorse and sadness."
While older children can better express how they are feeling, they still need support. Gilboa urges parents to share their grief with friends and family members so they can be strong for their children.
“We are not relying on our kids. Primarily so we can be a foundation person to our kids, to listen whatever they have to say without taking it personally,” she said. “Kids might feel angry about their (deceased) parent … we have to be able to hear that without making them feel (bad) for feeling it.”
When adults cannot move on, they can also make children feel uncomfortable if they're happy.
“We accidentally send the message that focusing on any feeling of joy is wrong,” Gilboa said.
Still, it’s important to talk with children about the death of their parent in age-appropriate ways or they might make their own story of what happened.
“They need to access it in a way that helps them contextualize it and move forward,” she said.
Coping doesn’t mean erasing the memory of a loved one. The Fab Five hung pictures of Allison throughout the house. And, they gave the Elrod family a beautiful wooden chest where they can store mementos. The chest includes an inscription in Allison's handwriting that reads: "P.S. Be nice to your brother." When she was sick, she wrote future birthday cards to her sons and ended every one with that.
“You can absolutely keep the memory alive and it is OK to grieve at different paces with different markers and remembrances,” she said. “Everyone doesn’t have to do it the same way.”
When the surviving parent feels ready to date, they should consider dating someone who feels that remembering the deceased parent is important.
“I really want them to re-partner with someone who does not feel threatened with that memory,” she said. “Erasing (the parents) would do those kids no good and potentially to do harm.”
Elrod's move signaled a big transformation, which after two years might be warranted (grieving moves at different paces for everyone). Gilboa said she encourages mourning families to put off big decisions following the death of a parent.
“I would encourage people to do nothing dramatic if they don’t have to for the first six months,” she said.