This article offers guidance for parents and educators in the how significantly children are affected by grief and how to help kids when a parent dies.
The loss of a parent & Ways to Help Kids when a Parent Dies
There is substantial evidence of the profound and life-long impact the loss of a parent has on a child’s life. Maxine Harris, author of The Loss that is Forever: The Lifelong Impact of the Early Death of a Mother or Father suggests that the loss of a parent is catastrophic and so powerful that a child’s life is dramatically altered. Feeling alone and different, the pain and sorrow are forever etched in a secret place in their minds. The emotional space of their worlds is completely ripped apart and they no longer have any sense of their own identity.
Fundamental errors are made when adults compare their experiences of loss with the loss a child feels when a parent dies. The very concepts and language of a child are inadequate to capture the pain, the horror, the panic, and the terror of the loss of a parent.
They have no words to help them understand what has happened and a terrifying sense of insecurity marks their lives. Everything feels different and unusual, nothing feels safe or predictable. A deep emptiness invades their world. Engulfed by the loss, a child feels there is no one to help them share the sadness or to help them hold on to their memories of the past.
There are difficult and challenging feelings children have to contend with when a parent dies. Maxine Harris calls these “forbidden feelings” shame, guilt, and relief. Children who cry uncontrollably in school after the death of a parent are sometimes ostracized from their friends or considered weird. This of course compounds their sense of isolation and loss
Struggling to cope with these overwhelmed with symptoms of grief teachers often remove these children from the classroom for extra support and may request medications for their “unacceptable” emotional outbursts. The strong messages children receive due to this type of reaction to mourning and grief is that it is not okay to cry or to be upset, particularly in public. They feel they must pretend that everything is always fine to prevent further humiliation and shame.
Normal Grief Behaviours
Shock or numbness, crying, sadness, anger, feelings of guilt, transient unhappiness, keeping concerns hidden, increase of clinging, disobedience, lack of interest in school, sleep disturbance, physical complaints, decreased appetite, temporary regression, believing deceased is still alive, relating better to friend for support rather than family these are all normal reponses to loss.
More Concerning Responses
Repetitive crying spells, depression that is disabling, thoughts of suicide, persistent anger, believing they are guilty, persistent unhappiness, social withdrawal, separation anxiety, conduct disorder, decline in school performance, insomnia, physical symptoms of the deceased, eating disorder, persistent regression, persistent belief that the deceased is still alive, promiscuity or delinquent behaviour.
To ensure that concerning behaviours and responses do not develop into serious psychological problems a child should receive therapeutic as soon as possible. Please do not take this issue lightly.
What Do Children Need?
Children need the absolute assurance that their remaining parents or primary care guardians love them. This belief is so fundamental for their secure development, they will hold on to this even in the midst of any distress. To feel safe in the world, a child has to feel loved by someone important to them. Parents and teachers need a clear understanding of the grief process children go through and the importance their role plays in helping them to heal.
Supportive Ways to Help Kids when a Parent Dies – Books
The invisible string is a lovely picture book to help younger kids cope with loss
Be Happy Be You
For older kids /teens my book Be Happy Be You has a lovely section on coping with loss packed with ways to help with grief. Ibn this book I share this with the young people who read it.
‘George Bonanno, is the most well known grief researcher in the United States and has been looking at how we cope with loss His findings are reassuring .
In his book The Other Side of Sadness he says :
“The good news is that for most of us, grief is not overwhelming or unending. As frightening as the pain of loss can be, most of us are resilient. Above all, it is a human experience. It is something we are wired for, and it is certainly not meant to overwhelm us.
In simple terms he’s telling us grief in a natural part of living and we will get through it intact no matter how hard it seems.
There has long been talk about the stages of grief and how we have to grief work and how it’s all really complicated but Bonanno has now found that for most of us grieving is a natural process and we will survive intact.
That’s good to know, right? Feelings are entirely normal and you are hardwired to come through it intact, the same but different.
I also encourage this activity
Think about the person you have loved and lost, perhaps you’d like to stick a photo of them in this book.
What wonderful things did they introduce you to, share with you or bring to your life?
Write a little thank you letter alongside your photo acknowledging all of these things and expressing your gratitude.
Through acts of gratitude and remembrance young people are encouraged to remember their loved one’s life rather than focus only on their death
For lots more grieving and general wellbeing support see my book Be Happy Be You – a teenage guide
5 Essential Ways to Help Kids when a Parent Dies
- Children need to clearly understand the death- in order not to fantasise about it or imagine it was their fault
- They need people to use clear language so they aren’t told their parent has ‘gone away’ or is sleeping forever as this can be confusing misleading and terrifying if taken literally.
- They need constants – so to watch favourite TV shows, listen to to music they love, keep up hobbies, stick to routines – in he midst iof so much change constants will give them a sense of security
- They need to be allowed to be sad – constant attempts to cheer them up and negate their pain will cause them to push it inwards and this is unhealthy
- Don’t be afraid to speak about the person they have lost because it’s painful, sharing memories is a way of keeping them alive and if you do this a child will feel that they can too.
To live in hearts we leave behind is not to die’ – Thomas Campbell, Poet
Further Ways to Help Kids when a Parent Dies
I am a qualified psychotherapist and I have worked as a bereavement counsellor This list of ways to help kids when a parent dies is not exhaustive and as support is so key let me refer you over to the experts at Winston’s Wish for additional resources and guidance .