The Death of a Parent: How to help your child
When I was 20 years old, my father died. At the time, my parents were not together as marriage partners and I rented a room in my Granny’s house. I was enrolled full-time in university, tending to a full course load working toward my Bachelor of Science. I felt very alone, disconnected, and overwhelmed with waves of emotion. I went into a numb state, where I could not feel anything. I had to work through my own suffering. It was one of the hardest times of my life.
Today, given my own lived experience losing a parent, and years of working with youth, I am able to offer effective support and guidance to support your child in a way that will help them process all the feelings they may, or may not be having, after the death of a parent.
Developmental Stages of Understanding Death
Preschool children (2-4), will often understand death as a temporary, reversible and impersonal. Stories often portray characters that come alive again after being destroyed so this is part of their beliefs at this age. This is appropriate for their age level.
Ages five to nine (5-9), most children begin to see that all living things eventually die and that death is final. Relating it to themselves is not in their understanding at this point. Most children this age do not believe death could happen to them personally. There are, however, children within this age group that dream of death or dying, often with symbols, which can be very scary.
Ages nine through to adolescence (9-21), this age group begin to have a fuller understanding of what death is. They know death is irreversible and that they too will die one day.
The Need For Connection
When an important family member dies, the whole family can feel shattered and devastated. A grieving parent will naturally want to withdraw in order to get in touch with their own suffering and loss. It can be at this time, that your child feels alone and disconnected.
It’s important that your child is able to still feel connected to you at this time, and the parent they just lost. This is a tough task especially when in your own sorrow and grief.
You can help them to do this in the ways listed below.
Specifically, they need:
- sufficient information about the death
- addressing their fears and anxieties as best you can
- reassurance they are not to blame
- careful listening
- acknowledgement and acceptance of their feelings and grief
- a sense of safety in their world
- respect for their own way of healthy coping
- bringing in outside supports who will guide and help
- supporting them during waves of emotions
- involvement and inclusion in rituals and anniversaries
- opportunities to remember the person who has died
When therapy can help?
Parents and children often try to protect each by not fully expressing their grief for fear of bringing further sadness.
Sometimes we (both parent and child) experience difficulties with grief and may need professional help. As a parent you will want to watch for the following signs. Many of these signs are normal but may indicate a problem if they continue for a long time and don’t seem to change over time.
Has continuing difficulty talking about their parent who has died.
Is displaying aggressive behaviour and anger.
Has unexplained physical symptoms and discomfort such as stomach aches and headaches.
Sleeping and eating problems
Has sleeping difficulties and eating disturbance such as eating excessively or having very little appetite.
Marked social withdrawal
Doesn’t want to socialise with friends or others outside the family.
Has serious academic reversal, inability to concentrate or behavioural problems.
Has continuing blame or guilt.
Self destructive behaviour
Engages in at-risk behaviour and talks about wanting to hurt themselves.
What therapy offers
Therapy offers the older child or adolescent the opportunity to talk about very difficult things in a safe and non-judgemental environment. The therapist or counsellor may suggest that you come with your children and that you all talk together. Children under about 8 years will need the opportunity for expression that play therapy offers. Remember that very young children and infants are also deeply affected by the loss of a parent although their way of managing the feelings will not always be obvious.
It is very important to check, and imperative to ask, whether the clinician has clinical training and experience in working with children and young people.
As a teacher and therapist, I have 17 years of experience working with children and adolescents with specific training in how to work with children ages 5-21.
Call to connect with me today 250-681-1100.