I raised two children who lost their birth father when they were four and a half years old and ten months old. They are now in their twenties and doing well in life, so I speak with some experience. This layered on my own life experiences and those of the many people I have spoken with about death and grieving informs this article.
When we have a death in the family most of us shift into automatic. If you are Catholic, there is the wake; those of the Jewish faith observe the complex ritual of Sitting Shiva. Other faiths follow their own ritual patterns. These are most helpful for grieving adults, but often baffle young children. We all forget one fundamental principle: grieving presupposes an understanding of the finality of death. Very young children have not yet come to understand the finality of death. Everyone tells stories of the child who asks at the wake ‘when will Grandma wake up?” It’s common to hear of the child who, after the whole chain of rituals, still asks a mother who has done her best to explain death “when is daddy coming home?” Seeing death on television or hearing stories of it read to them doesn’t necessarily prepare them to experience it firsthand. If you want to understand how a young child grieves try to imagine how you would process the experience of a loved one’s passing if you truly did not understand the finality of death. Stop reading this and try to imagine it right now.
We don’t help the situation by telling young children that “grandma is in a better place,” or that “uncle has gone to heaven.” We may believe this with all our faith, and that is entirely proper. Just try to understand what these expressions mean to a child who doesn’t really understand death. If, say, ‘Daddy’ is in a ‘better place’ or in heaven, at least three issues trouble a child. First, why did ‘Daddy’ chose to leave me and go to that other place; second, why didn’t he take me; and third, why can’t he come home to visit us? If you don’t truly get death, then these are three perfectly logical questions, but there are far more consequential implications.
The three questions above leads a child to wonder at least two things that can be disastrous to their long term mental health: “didn’t Daddy love me enough to want to stay with me?” and “what did I do wrong to make Daddy go away?” In the old days when I was a child, if you misbehaved you’d be spanked and told that you were bad or worse. Enlightened parents of my generation were taught to ‘dialog’ with our children, and say things like ‘when you behave like that you hurt my feelings.’ In either case, imagine what happens in the child’s mind if that parent suddenly vanishes into the incomprehensible void called death? Think about how easy it is for that child to self-blame. “I was bad and that made Daddy go away and not come back.”
The best insight I received from both the psychiatrist who was helping me manage my grief over the loss of my first wife, and the child psychiatrist we took my daughter to in order to help her deal with the loss of her birth father was this: children process the death of a parent differently throughout their lives. It is not simply something that happens and is over. It’s more like re-reading a cherished book at different points during your life. Nor is it continuous. Your child might become interested or obsessed with the loss of a parent for a finite period of time, reach some resolution, and then put it away for years. Sometimes life changes trigger reconsideration by the child, like adolescence, courtship, recognition for accomplishments scholastic or athletic. Sometimes it is because someone new has entered a surviving parent’s life; or it could be something as simple as a classmate losing a parent. This will persist into adult life; ask people who lost a parent at a young age– or at any age for that matter—what went through their minds when they had their first child.
So what can you do to help your young child deal with the death of a parent? I have three suggestions.
The first is simple. Don’t listen to me; find a real professional to help you and your child deal with the death of a parent. Ask your physician to recommend a child psychiatrist or psychologist. Find out what your insurance will cover, but don’t let that be the only factor. If you can find some way to swing it financially, this is the best investment you can make in your child’s emotional well-being. If finances are an issue, talk to your clergyman about what resources are available in the community. Is there a psychologist on staff at your child’s school? Ask them about available services for your child. If not, talk to the guidance staff. If the school staff and the clergy can’t find you affordable services, call the Psychiatry department at the nearest medical center. Then try your city’s or county’s social services departments.
Second, inform yourself as fully as possible. If you go to the AfterTalk bookstore you will find a number of books on grieving and DVDs you can order on helping your child deal with death. If you can’t afford this, go to your local library. If you can’t find what you need on the shelves, as the librarian; most community libraries have inter-library loan services that will find the book or DVD for you at a larger branch. The Web is filled with information on this topic, but surprisingly there is no dominant player like The Compassionate Friends website that helps parents who’ve lost a child. Avoid sites that try to sell you a lot of products or enroll you in expensive seminars and retreats. If you want help that is non-denominational, read the “About Us” tab carefully. Religiously affiliated websites are not always candid about this, so read between the lines. Another great source of advice from people who have, like you, guided their children through the loss of a parent, is the online forum. You can start with the AfterTalk Forums. If you don’t see one that fits you, tell us to start one start one by writing to firstname.lastname@example.org . In any forum, including AfterTalk’s, use your alias name only, and be wary of people who want your personal information or are trying to sell you products or services.
Third, and this is my own non-professional, advice, introduce short lifespan pets early in your child’s conscious life. Handled with sensitivity, the death and mourning for a pet can be a good rehearsal for the death of a person. Fish, birds and reptiles are good for this since the emotional attachment is limited compared to dogs and cats. They’re also easier to bury. Children raised on family farms learn about and understand death much sooner than most middle class urbanites because they see the cycle of life played out seasonally.
I’d really welcome your thoughts and suggestions. Please click on the green comment link right below the title of this article and tell me what you think.