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.
Although you might expect that children will show more signs of grief when the deceased parent was one with whom they had formed a particularly strong bond, that isn't always the case. In fact, greater emotional trauma may be experienced when the parent/child bond wasn't strong, simply because there are unresolved issues. In the case of abused children, for instance, exquisite emotional pain may be felt due to the inability to improve the relationship between parent and child before their demise. As a result, those children are often left with feelings of pain and rejection, without the opportunity to somehow "make it right". Typically, questions such as, "Didn't mom/dad love me?," "Did mom/dad ever feel sorry for what they did?," and "What did I do wrong to make them treat me that way?" will haunt children who have been the victims of abusive parents. As a result, part of their grieving process will include the pain of never knowing the answers to the questions that are the most significant to them. Even if it first appears that there's a feeling of relief when these children realize that their tormenter is gone, those questions will eventually surface, as well as the pain and feelings of rejection that are associated with them.
Expressions of Grief in Children
The approach to a child's grieving process will need to take into consideration their age, developmental level and ability to understand the implications of what's actually happened. Often, they look to other significant adults in their midst in order to gauge the types of reactions that they're having to the loss. If, for instance, the adults appear to be showing a "strong face," then children will often react differently than they would to an adult who openly cries. By watching those around them, children will begin to perceive what form of grief is "acceptable".
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.
Regression – Don't be surprised if you find that children who have recently lost a parent begin to show signs of behavioral regression. In order to receive the comfort that they need during this type of crisis, some children will exhibit the desire to be rocked as they were when they were much younger, or to be held quite frequently. Other forms of regressive behavior include separation anxiety from significant adults, difficulty performing tasks that fall within their age and ability range (which they had been performing prior to the death of the parent) and the need to sleep in the bed of the deceased parent. The philosophy behind this is quite simple – children need to be protected and made to feel safe from that which poses a threat, whether it's mental, emotional or physical. Naturally, they normally turn toward a parent or other significant adult in order to receive this protection. Since these behaviors are indicative of the "protective parent" scenario, it's understandable that children may seek out these types of comforts when faced with grief of this nature – much in the same way that, when something threatens their security, the first thing they do is call for "mommy".
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.
Invite Questions About Death – There are some topics that no-one seems to feel comfortable talking about, and death is often one of them – especially when children are involved. In order to truly be of help to children who have recently lost a parent, however, you're going to need to get beyond those feelings of discomfort and invite them to ask any questions that they may have regarding death and its implications. Some approach this type of tragedy from a religious angle, while others choose to present the situation in a more generic way, by discussing the role that all living creatures take in the world, and that their roles will eventually end one day. Regardless of the approach, children should be made to feel comfortable about asking questions, and adults should feel just as comfortable answering them. If you're worried about not knowing the way to correctly address a particular question, simply be honest about the fact that you're unsure of the answer. No-one can be expected to know everything, and kids will respect the fact that you're honest enough to admit the fact that you can't always answer the questions that they pose.
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.
Diana L.M.I. Dawson is an award winning freelance writer with 30 years of experience in the literary field. In addition to the recognition that she's enjoyed through the writing of articles, she has also excelled in the area of poetry, having been named Poet of the Year for three consecutive years, as well as International Poet of Merit. Other awards include the Shakespearean Award for Literary Excellence and the President's Award for Outstanding Literature. She is currently listed in the International Who's Who in Poetry, as well as in the Best New Poets of the 20th Century, and is a direct descendent of Alfred, Lord Tennyson.