When children experience the death of a parent before the age of 17, it will affect on their character and emotional development—one way or the other. Many children who have suffered this hardship become mature, successful adults who are resilient when life brings other challenges. They may become this regardless of how people around them handle the situation, but there are a variety of things adults can do that make it easier.
As Dan Wolfson, a clinical psychologist whose mother died when he was 18, points out ““I don’t think I would say, ‘it’s a good thing to have your parent die,’ but what I would say is that it teaches people from a younger age that I can have [terrible things] happen to me, I can have really challenging things happen in my life, and I’m able to deal with that,” Wolfson says.
So, what can an adult do to help? Talking to children about death is not a one size fits all proposition. In some ways, It really depends upon the age and maturity of a child. Children understand death differently than adults do. Since the late 50s, psychologists have understood that the concept of death has several dimensions and children don’t understand all of them until they are about ten. These dimensions are:
- irreversibility: dead people cannot come to life again.
- finality: when a person dies, all functioning, from breathing and eating to dreaming and thinking cease.
- inevitability: Everyone will die. There are no exceptions, although teenagers often test their own mortality.
- causality: young children don’t understand what causes death.
Stanford children’s health organization summarizes the kinds of issues children have when a parent dies like this: Babies, toddlers and preschool children don’t really understand that death is permanent or final. School age children are more realistic. They understand that death is permanent and they fear the unknown, loss of control and separation associated with it. Teens realize death is permanent and everyone must die, but they may still harbor secret ideas of personal immortality, leading them to try risky things. Or, they may become angry and fearful, especially if there is no one that listens to their concerns.
Regardless of the child’s level of understanding, however, the most important thing an adult can do is talk about the death to children–not as a special event, although there may be occasion for that—Jewish families, for example, celebrate the year anniversary of a death. Talk about death to children in the course of everyday life with the child’s limited understanding in mind. You may need to remind them that the parent is not coming back, or teach them that people who die no longer eat or think or dream, but just talking about the person who died is a pretty simple solution and provides an opportunity for children to voice their feelings. Try some of these ideas:
“Do you remember where you and Daddy were in this picture?”
“I was just thinking of your Mom when I saw those orchids. She loved orchids.”
Wait and see if this evokes a response. If the child doesn’t want to talk about it, don’t press it, but offer an opportunity. No grilling. Just listening.
You can also express your own feelings, “I sure miss your Dad right now. I wonder what he would have done…”
“This has been such a hard year. Sometimes I still feel so sad.”
Acknowledge that sorrow comes in waves. Sometimes it’s harder than others.
“I wish your Dad were here tonight. He’d be so proud of (happy for, pleased by) you.”
If the child has questions, answer as honestly as you know how. Keep it short. Listen.
It is especially important to remind children that not everyone who gets sick will die, that you are in good health and that there are lots of people in their lives that love them and want to help care for them.
As children move through the first year or two, they may exhibit many reactions. They may withdraw or rebel; they may cry for “no reason,” or want help they have not needed in months or even years. They may suddenly want you to hold their hand when they cross the street, or need you to help them get dressed when they were able to do it a week ago. Some revert to thumb sucking or become clingy and irritable. Others suffer from angry outbursts that are out of proportion to the situation. If you are a parent or a teacher, you may wonder whether you should give in to this behavior. I give that quesion a guarded “yes.” It is most likely in the first year, but may extend well into the second. Beyond the first year, you may need to seek professional advice. School-aged children may have problems sleeping or concentrating in school or experience stomachaches or headaches when they are in situations that remind them of the person who died.
Over time, the child’s sense of identity is reorganized by the death of a caretaker and as well as relationships with other. They have to allow themselves to reinvest emotionally in relationships without being overly afraid of losing that person to a death. At this phase, a well-adjusted child still remembers the loved one without fearing excessively that others will die and is able to cope with those memories and any sadness associated with them.
I saw this reaction in my granddaughter, who was 6 when her Dad died. At first she shied away from any contact with me, though she had been cuddly and engaging before. Sometimes she actually pushed me away, ran to her bedroom and hid under the desk, sobbing. I adopted the habit of asking her if she wanted me to go away. “No,” she would say, so I would just sit on the bed, quietly meditating until she was ready to come out again. It was months before she relaxed around me and began to snuggle up on the couch again or reach for my hand to cross the street. Children often worry that if they get close to someone again, bad things might happen.
Neither Emmy, nor Lily, her sister who was 10 when her dad died, talked about death or their dad for most of the year. He died in July, 2018 and they didn’t bring it up until the start of school in September, 2019. Maybe getting through the anniversary of his death and settling back into a school year routine freed them up to talk. When they started school last year, their dad had only just died and they definitely didn’t want people to know. They didn’t want to talk about it at school. By this year, everyone in their little school knew.
This September, out of nowhere, Lily said, “I don’t remember what my Daddy was like before he was sick.”
“Well, Pop and I were just talking about your dad the other night,” I said. “He wasn’t a very talkative person. So, you might have trouble remembering things he said.” She nodded.
“Try to think about the way he used to put you on his shoulders, or hold you up when the waves came at the beach. He used to sit with you at night and scratch your back if you couldn’t sleep. He made you feel safe, I think. You knew that there was someone in the world who would lay down his life for you.”
“Yeah,” she said and went back to her drawing. That’s all it takes sometime. Just a word or two.
About the same time, at dinner one night, the group began talking about whether it was best to just drop dead or to die of something that gave you time to prepare and say good-bye.
“The worst thing that can happen,” Emmy, who was 7 this year, said “is to have your Mom come bursting into your friend’s house and tell you that your daddy died.”
There’s a conversation stopper! We all agreed with her, of course, and it seemed like something had opened up for Emmy. She was willing to talk about it a bit and even to accept the idea that she might like to “talk to someone and get help.” She chose the school psychologist, who had been working with her the previous year.
As adults, many children who experience the death of a caretaker become quite successful, perhaps because they develop resilience. In his 2013 book David and Goliath: Underdogs, Misfits, and the Art of Battling Giants, journalist Malcolm Gladwell details the work of psychologist Marvin Eisenstadt, who found that from a selection of 573 famous or high-achieving individuals, a quarter had parents who passed away before they were 10. Almost 35 percent had lost parents by the age of 15, and 45 percent by the time they were 20.
Stephen Colbert and Anderson Cooper both experienced the death of their fathers at the age of 10. In a recent televised conversation (you tube), they talked about how significant that fact continued to be throughout their lives. Cooper notes that he has always wished he had some kind of mark on his head that would let people know his father died when he was a child. He felt he couldn’t be understood without people knowing, but didn’t always want to tell them.
Talking and listening, watching for symptoms, patience and empathy are all important to a child’s recovery. Talking about the death with other kids may also help. There are programs especially designed for families of children aged 7 or 8 through adolescence. These family bereavement programs give children and their caretakers a chance share their challenges with others and learn a wide range of coping skills. Numerous studies have shown that such programs can help families move on with their lives.
Here are some easy points to remember as you move through the first and second year with the children you love:
- Talk about the person who died with them when you have a chance.
- Remember with young children, you may need to remind them that the person who died is not coming back and that the death is in no way their fault.
- Watch for emotional symptoms like rage or sorrow that seem out of proportion to the events that trigger them. Watch for physical symptoms like stomachaches or headaches.
- Get professional help if you are having a hard time coping with a child’s regression or sudden outbursts.
- Consider finding a grief group where families can talk with each other about their experience.