Blog 107. Death and Bereavement: When A Child Loses A Parent.
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As adults we know that when we’re confronted with a trauma or a loss, we can sometimes struggle to find the right words to express our grief or sorrow. Expecting a child or a teenager to do the same – is a lot to ask. And this is why, when a child loses a parent or indeed both parents to either death, via illness, divorce and so on, they usually find it very difficult to communicate exactly what they feel, especially if they are very small.
But sadly, adults are not always aware of the range of emotions children can feel when they lose a parent. Children may even be sent out to play, and as a result, they may seem not too bothered by the goings on. But what they feel deep within, may come as a quite a shock to many adults.
Child Psychologists have over many years studied child development and children’s response to loss, trauma and so on. Through play therapy it is evident that children do actually feel a whole host of feelings but because they lack the emotional language to articulate these feelings, they tend not to – especially in the way we expect them to.
What is also evident, is that sometimes when a child is asked to communicate their feelings about an event or trauma, and if for whatever reason they feel under pressure in any way, they may come up with what they think is expected of them, rather than the truth about what happened or what they may really feel. This can result in misunderstandings, also because what a child says or reveals, compared to what an adult might understand, can lead to two different viewpoints. This can of course be very frustrating for all involved.
Also, when children loses a parent, often they can start fretting about the possibility of losing the other parent too. This could lead to feelings of stress and it may lead them to act out and question whether they are truly safe. This is a natural survival instinct that we all have. And a child may even try to ‘push’ the surviving parent away – as a test.
And kids in therapy often also report that when they experience loss, they often question whether it was their fault that their mummy or daddy left, or whether they could’ve done something to prevent a parent from leaving or dying. This can happen on either a conscious or unconscious level. And it can lead to children feeling that they need to be punished. And if they aren’t punished – they may find ways to punish themselves.
This could lead to children acting out either at school or at home, and usually once they have worked through the behaviour, it may quietly disappear. If however, the feelings are not addressed and are allowed to fester, a child can withdraw – leading to destructive behaviour which could continue into adulthood. Sometimes the destructive behaviour can be quite subtle, other times extremely obvious – for example, homework may be left undone versus violent outbursts.
Worse still, and for example, if a child had been naughty or if they had said something nasty before mummy or daddy left or died, this may result in further feelings of shame, self–hatred, guilt, along with immense sadness leading even to depression if not immediately, then possibly later on in life.
And if a child had bonded more with one parent than the other, and if the parent they love more, then passes away, the loss and consequent emptiness can be twice as hard.
This is why it is so important to understand that grief has many varying emotional aspects, which can be hidden and buried if not properly or fully understood. But as we already know, buried feelings tend to emerge, often much later or even in adulthood – and usually when it’s most inconvenient. This is why it is so important to get immediate support for a child, either via other family members, friends but most importantly – via a child’s teachers and possibly even the resident school counsellor.
Because just like with adults, if issues are not addressed they could escalate. And it could escalate especially if a living parent forms a NEW relationship. This could then lead to a whole host of uncomfortable questions.
If for example a mother had passed away then the following questions may be asked:
– Has daddy forgotten mummy?
-Did he ever really love mummy?
-Does daddy love his partner more than he loved mummy?
-Does this new partner remove our mummy’s memory?
-How will this new partner replace mummy and if so, will she be forgotten?
These kind of questions are real for children. And depending on how a situation is managed, children may find that they cannot ever allow themselves to like anyone new – in fear of being disloyal to their own mother. This may lead to a lot of anger toward their father. But also, if children have unaddressed emotions of grief, they could choose to project them onto their new mummy or step-mother. This might make things very awkward emotionally, and it would seem that everything was her fault.
They could do this by playing one party off against the other. And strangely enough in many cases, this could still be part of the grieving process as well as testing daddy’s love and loyalty. But also, children may behave like little angels in front of daddy but once daddy leaves – they could transmute into obnoxious little devils.
This is usually a way of managing their fear of losing their mummy’s memory, etc, and often it is also a warning to the stepmother to be careful – especially if they fear that their father may love her more than he did their mother. And if she has children of her own, they would fear their father loving her children more too.
What children need in a time like this is a lot of loving discipline and a lot of understanding and communication. One great tip for kids is to keep writing down what they remember of their parent on a piece of paper which they can then put in a large container in order to always keep hold of the memory of their mother.
But if the children are unable to settle down then family counseling might be a good option – to help both parent and children deal with the loss.
Families are very complicated, let alone a loss, or a new step parent or indeed a step parent with a family. And creating a merger between two families can result in further upset and trauma.
The death of a parent is a dreadful blow because no one will ever love you again like a parent does:
Understanding this and understanding that often a child will miss a parent dreadfully. They will miss the love , the intimacy and understanding that a parent offers. This of course would apply especially to a child who has lost their mother. The shock, the numbness, the sadness, the denial and even anger, can result in utter despair which can persist for months or even years after.
And sadly, as a child grows older they may begin to forget a parent’s voice or face. Slowly their memories may fade, yet every important milestone may bring back the feeling of loss and a deep inner longing for what is gone. This is why keeping a jar of memories is important and thankfully the odd photograph may also help keep the memories alive.
Sadly however, studies show that there is a link between grief and mental illness/depression/addictions. Many can find the lack of a parent hard and as a result many may try to numb the feelings either through drink or drugs and so on.
If you have experienced losing a parent or indeed both parents, or if you have a child who has lost a parent, please do not hesitate to get support. There is no shame in this as death is usually no one’s fault.
Experiencing grief however is a natural process but it can also be one of celebration as we remember what the person did give us whilst they were alive. Holding on to this is important, whilst also allowing the grief not to be buried but accepted and felt as best we can – remembering that children also need to express their grief and if this is suppressed it could lead to pain and angst later on in life.
Nicole Krauss in The History of Love wrote that, “All the times that I have realised that my parents are dead, even now, to exist in the world while that which made me has ceased to exist, is most difficult.” And she is right. The mirror would be gone and the ancestral chain left with a gap.
Losing a parent or parents can be so very very hard, and the emptiness that ensues may never be replaced – only worked through as we try to accept that the grief has to live within us and as part of us. Sad but true.
© 2019 Deidré Wallace All rights reserved.
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