Death of a Parent: Saying Good-Bye to Mommy or Daddy
Coping with the death of a loved one is never easy, regardless of how old you are when that loss occurs. For children who lose a parent, however, the effects can be devastating, indeed, and a plan will need to be put in place so that they can learn to accept this part of the life cycle and move on in a healthy, balanced manner.
It's important to understand that grief will be expressed differently by each person, and that there's no "right" way to grieve. In fact, there's no specific point at which children should be expected to show signs of having coped with the loss of their parent. The expression, "process of grieving," is an accurate description of what must take place, since this can only happen over time and is expressed through certain stages of behavior and their related emotions. In other words, grief isn't a single event; it's a series of steps that children must grow through in order to come to the acceptance of their particular loss. The philosophy that they should simply "keep a stiff upper lip" doesn't apply and isn't an appropriate goal to set for children if they're going to work through their grief without serious consequences - behaviorally, emotionally or otherwise.
Expressions of Grief in Children
Questions - When children don't understand what's happening around them, they often hit the adults with a barrage of questions. This is also true in the case of a death - especially when dealing with younger children. Often, the same questions will be asked repeatedly as they struggle to understand the concept of death and how it will impact their young lives. If they're a bit older, these questions can be their way of trying to accept what's happened as they work through their disbelief that the parent is actually gone, even though they do understand the general concept.
Shock - As adults, the shock that's brought about by a trauma can manifest itself in a variety of ways. Children are no different in their approach to something of this magnitude. While some may sob inconsolably, others may show no apparent emotion, whatsoever, appearing to be unaffected by the event. For those adults who are part of their support system, it's important to remember that this is typically just a way for children to remove themselves from the pain of the circumstances until they're able to cope with their loss more constructively.
Explosions - When something happens that's beyond our ability to control it, we're often faced with feelings of anger, resentment, frustration, fear or helplessness. Children, who are even more vulnerable to the effects of such tragedies, will often act out with explosive emotions. Naturally, one of their first thoughts is that they want their parent back, but they know that they're incapable of making this happen. With no opportunity to change their circumstances, the feelings that are associated with them are often vented through explosive bursts of emotion or negative behavior.
Becoming Part of a Positive Support System
In order to be part of a positive support system for children who have lost a parent, certain steps must be taken that will help them to cope with their loss and eventually move onward. You should expect that this may be a lengthy process, so patience will need to be practiced, if you're going to be a successful member of the support team.
Practice Effective Listening - One of the best ways for children to work through their emotions is to be able to talk about them with an adult who's willing to listen - without lots of interruptions - and not react negatively to what they have to say. Even if anger or resentment bubbles to the surface, realize that this is natural and don't berate them for their feelings. Just as important is the willingness to validate their feelings. For example, if they express an angry sentiment, don't respond by telling them that they shouldn't feel that way. The fact is that they do have those emotions and are entitled to express them. Instead, it would be better to say, "Yes, I can understand why you feel that way."
Learn to Individualize Children's Reactions - Children are individuals and, to that end, will have their own unique reactions to the loss of a parent. It's critical, then, not to lump them all together in a compartment that you've labeled, "children," or you won't be an effective member of the support team. Their lives, experiences and perceptions are all different, and their reactions to the death of a loved one will be different, as a result of those variables. Therefore, you must approach them on their own level, if you hope to be of help.
Incorporate Others into the Support Plan - Naturally, it's important to implement a strong support plan for children in their home environment. They don't, however, spend every waking moment at home, so the support team will need to extend beyond those boundaries. Schools, friends and other relatives will need to be involved in helping them to cope with the loss of their parent - as well as anyone who comes into contact with them through extracurricular activities, such as dance class, scouting, sports, etc. If possible, have a meeting with school staff members and other significant people in their lives, so that a solid plan can be established for maintaining positive support for the children - regardless of where they are at any given point of the day. Consistency is the key to effective support, but that can't be accomplished unless everyone's "in the loop".
Be Honest and Forthright - Children, like adults, deserve the truth about the circumstances that impact their lives. While you may approach the situation a bit differently when children are involved, you should still strive to be honest about the circumstances that surround the loss of their parent and don't tell them "little white lies" in order to protect them from the consequence of pain. They're already experiencing pain, and if they perceive that you're not being on the level with them - and they will! - then that will only lead to further pain and some distrust on their part. In addition, they'll wonder why you lied and will feel that it's a negative reflection on them. In other words, they'll think that you didn't trust them enough to be honest about the situation.
Explain the Life Cycle - It isn't enough for children to be told that they've just lost a parent. Some form of understanding must go along with this, and it's up to the remaining adults to ensure that this happens in a manner in which they understand. One of the ways to help children understand what's really happened is to explain the cycle of life to them. In this way, they'll not only understand that what's happened is natural, but will also understand that they're not alone, and that everyone must eventually face the death of a loved one. When a parent is lost, kids often feel as though no-one else can understand, because they don't always recognize the fact that many other people have also lost a parent. When they look around at their friends who still have both parents, they can feel isolated and - in some cases - even feel as though they're being punished because their parent has died, while others still have their parents. By understanding the life cycle, this is less likely to have such a strong impact on them.
Stay in it for the Long Haul - All too often, people will gather 'round a grieving family and offer support in the short term, but their show of support evaporates in very short order. Understand that, when you're the member of a support team - especially for children - it requires a lengthy commitment. Since grieving is a process that can be quite slow, it may take a serious amount of time before children can grieve effectively, accept the loss of the parent and move on to live their lives in a healthy way. If they've already had a number of difficulties or losses in their lives, then the loss of their parent is inclined to trigger an even greater degree of trauma, and those who belong to their support system must be prepared to stay with them through the highs and lows - no matter how long it takes.
Children's Perceptions of Death
Death is perceived on different levels by children of different ages. Since their understanding of death will help them to work through the grieving process when they've lost a parent, it's important that those who surround them know how to relate to them, in order to effectively support them as they work through their grief.
Infants/Toddlers - The most that will be understood by children of this age is that those who surround them appear to feel sad about something, but they'll have no idea why. Although they may notice that someone significant is missing, they may be too young to be able to link the two circumstances.
Preschool - Children of this age may appear, at first, to understand the basic concept of death, but don't typically see this as being something "unchangeable". Since kids in this age bracket often see things in terms of fantasy or magic, they tend to see the separation as temporary and genuinely believe that the person can be brought back from death - if only they wish hard enough.
Elementary School - Between the ages of five and nine, children begin to have a better understanding of death and its irreversibility. Through talking with family and friends, as well as discussions in their classrooms, a more realistic picture of the causes of death and the impact that a parent's death has on the remaining members of the family comes into focus. The tendency of this age group, however, is to believe that it couldn't happen to them or any of their friends or family members. So, while they understand it on its elemental level, they don't carry it to its fullest conclusion - particularly if they're at the younger end of the Elementary School spectrum.
Middle School - Children of this age certainly have a far better understanding of the concept of death, but are often impaired in their grieving process by feelings of injustice. For example, kids of the Middle School age group often feel that it "isn't fair" that they should lose a parent, although they do understand that certain illnesses and accidents are responsible for bringing about someone's death. Problems with behavior are often noted in children of this age when a parent is lost.
High School - These young adults certainly understand death, but don't often know how to vent their grief properly. They may withdraw or express themselves in violent outbursts, but the healthier ones will tend to seek solace in others. Whether this is a friend, surviving parent, sibling or other significant person in their lives, they'll reach out to those with whom they feel a special bond in order to find the comfort that they need when they're grieving. Since the teen years are difficult enough, and a number of them exhibit suicidal tendencies, it's extremely important to remember that those of this age group still need a strong support team and that their own ability to cope with their loss should never simply be assumed.
What it all boils down to is that, regardless of the age of the children, they all need to be related to in a kind, understanding and patient way when they're struggling to cope with the loss of a parent. Although the age and circumstances surrounding their lives will require different approaches, a positive support system needs to be put into effect and practiced by those who are consistent figures in their every day lives, as well as the willingness to continue supporting them for the duration of their grieving process.