In the weeks following the death of Elizabeth Edwards, there has been a lot of concern and questions expressed regarding her children, especially her youngest children, ages ten and twelve. Almost without fail, at the end of a news story about the Edwards’ family the commentators ask, “How are the children doing?” Really what they are asking is, “Will the youngest children be all right?” It is an understandable question. Given that the death of a loved one is so overwhelming for adults, how do we expect children (who seem so much more vulnerable) to cope effectively, especially after the loss of a parent? While it is impossible to say at this point whether the Edwards’ children will be “all right,” I can tell you what makes for a better outcome after the death of a parent.
1) Be Honest With the Children: If a parent is dying do not hide this from the children. The misconception is that by not telling the children the bad news that their parent is dying we are protecting them. In reality, what we are doing is confusing them. Children are very perceptive. They can see that something is wrong with their sick parent. When the people close to them refuse to discuss it or, worse yet, deny that anything is wrong, children feel confused and, at times, left out. Sometimes it is up to the parents to bring up the topic and to discuss it in an age appropriate way with their children but often the children will bring it up. When my father was dying, I asked my mother directly, “Is dad going to die?” She said, in an exasperated voice, “Oh, Meghan, we are all going to die someday.” She did not say yes or no but avoided the question. Her exasperated voice made me feel like I was being silly to ask. It was at that moment that I started to doubt my intuition and my judgment. I have since recovered, but it would have been more helpful had my mother just been honest, had she been able to confirm for me that my father was going to die. When a loved one is dying, during the months leading up to the death, (whether they realize it consciously or not) the surviving family members are preparing themselves, bracing themselves for the death. It is only fair to give children this warning to “get ready” as well.
2) As the Dying Parent Approaches Death Let the Children Know That the End is Near and Give Them the Option to Say Goodbye. When a family has been discussing the fact that a parent is dying throughout the days leading up to the death, it makes it a little easier when you have to tell the children that death is imminent. At this point the surviving parent (or other concerned adults in the child’s life) should tell the child what his or her parent looks like now. Be sure to let them know if medical devices are in place or if the parent looks a lot different then when they saw him or her last. The goal is to have the child prepared as well as possible for that last visit with his or her parent. If at this point children say that they do not want to go see his or her parent do not force them. Most children know what they can handle. If they say that they do not need to say goodbye, respect that wish. Even for the well-prepared child, going to say goodbye to a dying parent can be overwhelming and traumatizing, being forced to go say goodbye is doubly traumatizing. Also, if the child decides to go to say goodbye be sure that there is someone there who can take the child out of the room (or home) if the situation becomes too much for the child to bear.
3) After a Parent Has Died Tell the Children Directly and Avoid Using Euphemisms: Whether a death is sudden or expected, soon after it happens it is important to tell the children. It is best to sit them down in a quiet place and tell them directly, “Mom died this morning.” Often, with children, adults have the tendency to use euphemisms such as “Jesus took Mom to heaven last night.” We think that this will in some way lessen the blow of the loss. In reality, what it does is makes children afraid that Jesus is going to come for them the way that he came for mom. At this point each child will have a different reaction. Some will cry, others might faint, and a few might have no obvious reaction at all. The job of the adults at this point is to provide comfort and reassurance, and to answer questions. Some children might want to go outside to play with their friends or to be alone. Parents should allow this to happen as each child processes a loss differently. It is very common for children to grieve in dribs and drabs. One moment they might be crying over their dead parent while the next they might be outside playing with friends. It is important to give grieving children some space while being sure to check in with them periodically as well.
4) Let Children Decide Whether or Not They Want to Attend the Funeral Services: It is important to let children have a say in whether or not they want to attend the funeral service for their deceased parent. Many children will want to attend and some will even want to play an active role (i.e. do a reading, etc.). If the child decides that he or she does want to go to the services, it is important to prepare him or her beforehand for what he or she will experience (see, hear, smell, touch) at the services. It is a good idea to have somebody with you who can take the child outside or home should the service become too overwhelming. Many of the people I have spoken to reported that it was comforting to be at the services for their deceased parents but others told me that it was overwhelming, traumatizing, and embarrassing. Whether or not the child’s presence at his or her parent’s funeral is going to be helpful or hurtful depends a lot on the child’s personality, the support provided during the service, and the preparation he or she received beforehand.
5) As Much As Possible Keep Everything the Same: When a parent dies young, leaving a family behind, often the survivors feel as if the rug was pulled out from under them. One of the things that parentally bereaved children reported as being the most helpful was when their surviving parents were able to keep routines, homes, schools, as much the same as possible. Sometimes this is not possible due to the financial changes that happen when a parent dies, particularly the death of a father. But when it is possible, keeping things the same seems to provide a sense of safety and continuity for grieving children. Unfortunately, a lot of adults (including adults in my own family of origin) have this feeling that they want to change everything to mark symbolically making a new start after the death. Eventually, this might be a healthy thing to do but to do it too quickly can tend to disorient children. At the same time, I am not advocating that we hold on to rituals rigidly. If, for example, it is too hard to sit around the dinner table without the beloved parent, it is adaptive to change where you eat dinner. For many of us losing a parent is enough without adding the loss of a home, school, routine, to the mix. Changes can be made but they should be made slowly, over time, rather than all at once.
6) Provide a Safe Place For Children to Process The Loss: Immediately, after the death of a parent everything tends to be turned upside down, there are not enough hours in the day to get everything done, and yet there are still children who need help processing their grief. As a rule, children cannot process their grief without the permission and the help of adults. So, what is a surviving parent to do? This is a hard time. As much as possible, rely on your community, your support network, for help. Hopefully, you have friends and family who pitch in without being asked. If not, reach out to your family, friends, and church to try to garner some support. Some people will not be willing to help (even when asked) but many people will be glad to help. I have often been surprised at who comes through in a time of crisis (and who fails to help). Once people agree to help allow them to do the food shopping, driving children to after school activities, cleaning, and food preparation. Having a break from the regular duties of running a household will allow the surviving parent some time to process his or her own grief and to attend to the emotional needs of the children. At times, for various reasons (most often not wanting to upset the surviving parent), the children do not want to speak to their parent about the death. This is yet another role that the helpers can fill. A concerned family friend can provide a listening ear for a grieving child. Children need people to contain their anxieties, provide a listening ear, help them to make sense of their thoughts and feelings, and to offer reassurance.
As a psychologist I would be remiss if I did not suggest seeing a therapist in individual, group, or family therapy as a worthwhile endeavor to help the child and/or family to work through his or her grief. This is something that is certainly not necessary for every bereaved child or family but some people, some children, do find it to be helpful to have a safe place to go to explore all of their feelings and thoughts surrounding the death of their parent and all of the changes and new challenges they have experienced as a result. Children have a lot to negotiate when a parent dies including how to interact with their peers now that they feel fundamentally different and how to negotiate new responsibilities they may have to take on at home. It can be tremendously helpful to have someone in your corner who is not affected by the death of your parent during this time of change. Children often have a hard time speaking with their surviving parents for a lot of reasons including not wanting to upset them – this is not something that they have to worry about with a therapist. Many of the adults who I have spoken to expressed that they wished that their parent had found a competent therapist for them when they were newly bereaved. It is always better to catch a problem with adjusting to the death of a parent early rather than letting it play out and influence the course of one’s life in so many different ways.
7) Try to Make the Transition Back to School Smooth: As a rule, following the death of a parent, many children immediately feel different from their peers. This makes for a difficult transition back to school. Most children are out of school for at least a couple of days after their parent dies. When it is time to return the surviving parent and the child need to negotiate a way to make the move back to school as easy as possible. Often, it helps if the parent can contact the teacher and let him or her know what has happened. The parent should also ask the child how he or she wants the death of his or her parent to be handled at school. Some children are embarrassed if it is spoken about in the classroom, while others feel hurt if their parents’ death is not addressed. While they are not therapists, finding an ally in a teacher, someone who can listen to the bereaved child, can go a long way in healing a broken heart.
Commemorate the Dead Parent: Some children find it to be helpful to commemorate their deceased parent in some way, while other children want nothing to do with it. While children should not be forced to engage in these activities they should be given options for symbolizing their relationship with their deceased parents. People can commemorate their loved ones any way they want. Some children enjoy going to visit with their deceased parents at the cemetery. Other popular methods of remembering dead parents are through making scrapbooks and memory boxes. A memory box is a box within which they put different items, belongings, pictures, and memories of the deceased parent. It helps children to remember and to feel closer to their dead parents. It also gives them a forum within which to express and to explore their grief. Other children prefer to create a scrapbook of pictures and memories of their deceased parents. Some children want nothing to do with either of these activities. This is perfectly acceptable and to be respected.
While the loss of a parent during childhood is one of the most stressful and potentially traumatic events a child can experience, it will not necessarily result in a catastrophic outcome for the children. With the proper support children can not only survive but thrive after the death of a parent.
Those of you who were bereaved in childhood, what was the most and least helpful in terms of helping you to cope with the loss of your parent?