We sat as a family along with close friends near Carrie’s body the morning she died. We talked about her and told stories. I remember my youngest son bringing a building block model into the room then setting on the floor putting it together. Some might think that it was out of place to see this boy playing with building blocks a couple of hours after his mother died. However, I had some insight into his behavior. He had hoped to finish the model and show it to his mother before she died. He didn’t make it. Yet, in some way, working on the model made him feel closer to her. In other words, his behavior was perfectly normal.
Sometime later I thought about the children’s book Are You My Mother. The story line is about a bird that hatches while the mother bird is away searching for food. The baby begins searching for his or her mother asking everything, a cat, a dog, a cow, a steam shovel, “Are you my mother?” Remembering the book made me wonder how my son will ask this question in his grief. How missing his mother might affect his life long term.
Research into childhood grief has helped us understand many aspects of the experience. Few would question the traumatic nature of the death of a parent during childhood but it may be surprising to learn that about 1 in 20 children will lose a parent before reaching adulthood. Grief for children has many similarities with grieving adults but it may be expressed differently depending on the age or developmental level of the child. Whatever the age, grief affects a child emotionally, physically, socially, and behaviorally. Poorly processed grief or complicated grief can have long-lasting negative outcomes on a child’s life. However, there are important ways that the surviving parent can help support his or her children that will help them process grief and mitigate nearly all the negative effects. Let me share a few:
Make as few life changes as possible. Stability and routine give security to children. Unfortunately, the death of a parent disrupts the sense of security and will bring about changes. Some changes are forced upon the family but others changes are choices. Keeping the changes to a minimum will help. Staying in the same home, same school, same clubs and involved in the same after school activities will give the children a sense of continuity. Try to be aware of changes in friendships. Friends sometimes do not know how to interact with someone who has lost a parent or may not know how to handle the expressions of grief. In many cases it would be appropriate to speak to the parents of your child’s friends to address issues. Don’t be surprised to learn that many adults do not know how to react with grieving adults or children either. As the grief process matures changes will become less and less disruptive.
Don’t allow the children take on the role of the deceased parent. Children sometimes try to fill the physical and emotional void left by the deceased parent. This might include doing extra chores around the house that mom or dad once did. Balance and age appropriateness is the key to chores. Children may also try to take on the role of confidant or problem solver to the surviving parent. Allowing the children to be children is the best approach.
Be aware of secondary losses. These are the collateral losses. It may be a lifestyle that changes from a loss of income or the loss of a special movie-day that the child had with mom. A teenage daughter might feel a loss as she realizes that dad will not be there to walk her down the aisle at her wedding. Each of these losses will add another layer of grief. Being aware of secondary losses and helping the child acknowledge them in a supporting environment will help the primary and secondary grief process.
Talk openly and often about the deceased parent. Talking about the deceased parent helps move the relationship from physical presence to a loving memory. It helps the surviving parent as well as the child(ren). A good measure of the grief process is how well a person can handle talking about the deceased. In the beginning it is normal to tear up or cry when talking about the missing parent, it is normal if, from time to time, tears come when talking about them–even years later. Overall, as time goes on it will become easier with less and less emotional outburst. If a significant amount of time passes, perhaps six moths to a year, and it is still difficult to talk about the departed, it may be time to talk with someone about complicated grief.
Be emotionally available. This is the number one mitigater of the effects of childhood grief. Everything else can be done right but without this one in place, a child will struggle to process grief well. A surviving parent must not only embrace his or her own grief emotions but must be available to express them appropriately with the children, support and acknowledge the children’s emotions, and to demonstrate that he or she is able to care for the child(ren). Being emotionally available means to embrace the hurt, not only as the grieving spouse but also embracing the hurt of the child(ren). Attempts to avoid the pain of grief through illicit drugs, alcohol, overwork, entertainment, serial relationships, or other means will hinder or short circuit the grief process and will make the surviving spouse unavailable to the children.
From my own experience of losing a spouse and helping my children grieve while grieving myself, I have learned much about who I am as a man and a father. It has been a difficult and strenuous adventure. Being the sole care-giver is just plain hard and adding the grief process to the mix has made the journey the most difficult I’ve ever experienced. Yet, in the midst of all of the turmoil there has been an abiding peace from faith in Christ. I’ve come to understand that grief is a normal part of life, even for children. Helping them process grief well will help answer the question, “Are you my mother/father?”
Jeff is available to talk about grief issues. As a professional counselor, Jeff continues to help individuals and couples who are walking through loss. Contact information is on the home page of this website.