In this article we will touch very deep loss-the loss of a parent. It is hard to imagine how deep it cuts if you haven’t experienced it on your own skin. The best comparison I found was a comparison with a mountain climbing. Imagine that it is your first serious climb and you are accompanied by the professional climber. You rely on him with everything. He will show you the way, he will make sure that the way is safe, that you stay hydrated. In the middle of the mountain, your company dies. You are left alone. Chaos! Fear! That is exactly what a child who lost a parent feels. If a parent can disappear forever then nothing is safe and predictable anymore. Experience of the loss brings destruction to the family as a whole which often stops function as such and breaks down to individuals in the family.
Most people remember the day of the loss as being the end of their childhood. It marks a point before and after the life changed drastically. How was your experience like?
There is no universal face of grief. Children watch responses of the surviving parent and learn how they are “suppose to” mourn. “Is it O.K. to cry or I need to be strong and tough?”
The way someone grieves also depends on the age of a child. For example, those under the age of two may show loss of speech, while children under the age of five can respond by eating, sleeping, and urinary disturbance. School-age children may become phobic, preoccupied with body functions, withdrawn, or excessively care-giving. Especially in boys sadness may be replaced by aggression. Adolescents may respond similar to the adults, but they may also be reluctant about expressing their emotions due to the fear of being different.
Children who lost a parent when they were infants can feel absence instead of loss. “I don’t know what a “father” means. When I started school, I remember feeling different from other kids who had a mother and a father. /…/ There were no image (of father), just me, my brother, and my mother.” (Harris, 1995, p.18).
“My oldest brother was 13 when she died, and all he can talk about is what life would have been like if Mom had lived because he knows what life was like with her, he can really miss her. I never had her, so I don’t feel the loss. “(Harris, 1995, p.18).
Grief may continue on and off for many years, although it may get less intensive.
How did you and your family grieve? Did you grieve at all?
What a surviving parent can do for their children?
- After such a traumatic event the best you can do is to keep child’s routines as regular as possible. That will lessen his anxiety and eventually bring back feeling of stability and security.
It is important for a child to have an adequate information about the death, suitable for their age. They are often afraid that a living parent can die as well. It is important to talk about their fears and reassure them that they are not to blame.
- It is best to avoid any additional changes, such as moving homes, changing schools. Changes makes parental death significantly more difficult to deal with.
- Sometimes the child lost not only one parent but has also lost the one who is still alive. They are (understandably) in such a pain themselves that they can’t manage keeping a family together. It is very important for a surviving parent to seek help form the community and/or professional therapist. Some surviving parents can respond to loss with abuse, neglect and anger towards their child. They can also make the child their “partner” or fall in such a deep depression that they withdraw from a child’s world completely.
How was it in your family? How did surviving parent manage to keep the family together in a long run? Did the surviving parent seek help?
Don’t talk about it
In some families the parental loss could not be talked about at all. Children can deliberately hide their feelings in order to protect the surviving parent. In my clinical experiences clients had little space to talk about their loss. Not that it was particular forbidden to talk about it but at the same time the topic was not mentioned because they wanted to save their family form any further pain.
It is essential to go through the painful feelings when grieving. Talk to your child about your feelings and encourage them to express theirs. You can also start some rituals that encourage family members to express their feelings. For example make a family gathering at the grave a yearly event where everybody can express their feelings and remember the deceased. Celebrate their birthdays or visit their favorite restaurant together every couple of months. Create a space where it is O.K. to express emotions about the loss for years to come.
Did you talk about the loss in your family? It is still O.K. to talk about it now as an adult?
|-About 4% of children in Western countries experience the death of a parent.
-1 in 9 adults in a survey said they have lost a parent before they were 20 years old.
-40% recall frequently pretending to be O.K. not to upset their surviving parent.
-63% feared their surviving parent would also get sick and die.
Source: Poll by Greenwald & Associates for New York Life Foundation and Comfort Zone Camps.
HOW DEATH OF A PARENT CAN TOUCH US, part 2
LOSS IN CHILDHOOD, LOVE RELATIONSHIPS IN ADULTHOOD, part 3