Caring for Children When a Parent Dies

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As you know from my last post, a dear friend of mine is dying. She was an incredible light in this world and will be missed – so very much. She and her dear husband have two young children, under the age of 8. Many people have asked how to talk & be with them as well as how to explain her death to their own children. So, this blog post is dedicated to my friend and her family.

Developmental Understanding & What Helps

Two Years to Five Years

Preschool children often see death as reversible, temporary, and impersonal. They believe in magical causes. They have a great deal of curiosity and often ask lots of questions. Regression, aggression and clinging behaviors are common common after a death. They worry who will care for them.

What Helps: As hard as this is, remind them that their mom will not return. Reassure them that they are not to blame. Give realistic information and answer questions. Involve in “farewell” ceremonies (e.g., writing a letter to their mom or saying goodbye). Encourage questions and expression of feelings. Keep the home environment stable and structured. Notify the school of what is occurring.

Five Years to Nine Years

Between the ages of 5 and 9, most children begin to realize that death is permanent and that all living things die, but they still do not see death as something that can happen to them. They believe that death is escapable through ingenuity and effort. They tend to personify death as ghosts or “boogeyman.” They may see death as punishment and even (GULP) feel responsible, though they may not articulate it. It is imperative to reassure them (over and over) that they were not responsible for the death.

What Helps: Give clear and realistic information. Include the child in funeral ceremonies, if they choose. Give permission to express feelings and provide opportunities to do so. Reduce the potential for guilt by providing factual information. Maintain structured schedule, individual and family activities. Notify the school of what is occurring. Provide gentle confirmation and reassurance that they will be cared for.

Explaining death to children between the ages of 3 and 8 involves brief and simple explanations. It is best to explain it in terms of the absence of familiar life functions. For example: When people die, they do not breathe, eat, talk, think, or feel anymore. When flowers die, they do not grow or bloom anymore. When dogs die, they do not run or bark anymore.

Use the correct language – “Mommy has died” or “Mommy is dead.” Never ever use euphemisms such as “Mommy has gone to sleep” or “Mommy has gone away” or even “She has passed.” The use of euphemisms can cause an immense amount of confusion and irrational fears about sleeping, resting or people leaving.

A child may ask questions immediately or may respond with thoughtful silence and come back at a later time to ask more questions. Each question deserves a simple and relevant answer. Because children can confuse what they hear, it is critical to assess whether children have understood what has been said. Simply ask them to repeat what they have heard.

Children learn through repetition and may need to hear the same information multiple times. Sometimes it is not always easy to hear what the child is really asking. Sometimes it may be necessary to respond to a question with a question in order to fully understand the child’s concerns.

Pre-Adolescent through Teens

From about 9 or 10 through Adolescence, children begin to comprehend fully that death is irreversible, that all living things die, and that they too will die one day. During this period, philosophical views of life and death develop. Teenagers often become intrigued with seeking the meaning of life. Some react to their fear of death by taking unnecessary risks with their lives. In confronting death, they are trying to overcome their fears by confirming an artificial control over mortality. They often have a strong emotional reaction and may regress, even revert to fantasy. They may intellectualize the death and possibly develop a pre-morbid occupation.

What Helps: Provide clear, unambiguous information. Provide opportunities to express self and feelings. Encourage outside relationships with mentors. Provide tangible means to remember their loved one. Encourage self-expression, both verbal and non-verbal. Dispel fears about physical concerns. Educate about maturation. Provide outlets for energy and strong feelings (e.g., recreation, sports). They need mentoring and direction.

Funeral

Because funerals serve a valuable function of helping the living acknowledge, accept and cope with the death of a loved one, children who are old enough not only can but should be included in funeral arrangements. (You KNOW I don’t use the “S” word very often!)

What is “old enough,” you ask? It really depends on the child. To give you some perspective, though, I have been with children as young as two at funerals.

Ideally, children are engaged in the service. Even very young children can choose the kind of flowers they would like to give and may bring the flowers with them. Older children can do readings or assist with music selections. Many children write a letter, draw a picture, or choose a keepsake to put into the casket (as culturally appropriate).

It is important to prepare children for what they will encounter at each step of the funeral/memorial service. Explain what the funeral home, church, and/or cemetery look like. Explain and name significant elements such as casket, hearse, or grave. Include an explanation of how people may behave and help children to understand that the tears of the adults around them are okay and nothing to be afraid of. When they know what to expect, children will not be overwhelmed.

Choose a close friend, family member, or babysitter to accompany the children throughout the wake and funeral. This takes the pressure off of the surviving parent. This person serves as a child’s advocate and ensures that children are well cared for. The person acting as the child’s advocate will also answer their questions and be aware of the child’s emotional state when parents are busy with the extraordinary demands of the day. This person needs to be rock solid and focused on their sole responsibility of getting the child/children through the service(s).

Grief often looks very different in children than it does in adults. While some children may be tearful and appear sad, many more tend to play and socialize their way through the farewell ritual. Children are only able to hold a certain amount of emotional pain. They then need to let it out by playing. Many children have called the wake, “That big party we had for Mommy.”

The Silver Lining of including children at the funeral is that they really connect with the gathering aspect of these events and they can lead the way when it comes to celebrating a life. They often recount the wonderful things said about the person who has died and talk about all the people who came to the funeral. Children will remember having been part of the important goodbye and are affirmed by participating in it. With thoughtful preparation, we can safely and meaningfully include children in funeral rituals. There may be no greater opportunity to share with them what it means to be family.

The following poem so aptly describes the feelings and needs of grief stricken families.

 

 

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Comments

  1. Reta Lane says

    This coming July 4th, it will be 3 years since my husband passed away at home from Non-Hodgkins Lymphoma. I had gone to check on him and he was breathing funny so I went and called the doctor than the ambulance. While waiting for the ambulance my daughter dropped my granddaughter off without stepping in to find out what was going on so my granddaughter that was 8 was there when he died and I was outside crying. She comes and sits in my lap and tells me not to cry, that grandpa was already in Heaven. She kissed him goodby and at the funeral she had made his a couple of things and put it beside him in the casket.
    I think children understand a lot more than we give them credit for. Here, my granddaughter was the child but she was comforting me.

    Still makes me cry.

    • says

      Thank you so much for sharing your story, Reta. I couldn't agree more that children do know so much more than we give them credit for. How beautiful. Please take good care. Grief's limits know no bounds!

  2. Kim C says

    Thank you for this very thoughtful and helpful information, Hollye. A new perspective is always good. Death needs to be talked about more & out in the open. Even if we can only do a little bit, it seems like it would be a positive step in the healing process. God bless you, your dear friend and her loved ones.
    Kim

  3. Dorene Zimdahl says

    This is so deep and so meaningful. I have been to funerals where children were laughing and playing. I thought to myself, why doesn't someone control the children during such a painful process. I never looked at the way you expressed it, Hollye. At the ripe age of 65 you have taught me something new and I will remember it into the future. Thank you so much for the sharing you do for so many. I don't have young children to think about IF my situation changes. I do have two young great grandchildren. So this will help prepare them for the times it will be needed to communicate with them. Obviously, they have older relatives and friends of the family who will be passing in the future. I'm sharing this with everyone I know so it can be put to use. Thank you, again, Hollye.

  4. Patty Pian says

    Thanks for posting this difficult but incredibly important subject. One thing that I have found to be extremely helpful ( but again, VERY difficult to talk about and carry out) , is to prepare the child for what their family member will look like in the casket. I know this sounds gruesome to some but SO important that the child know what to expect, especially if it is a sibling we are talking about. I have had the kids help chose outfits and favorite things to put alongside their loved ones and found that including them in making the final resting place personal and "cozy" can be very therapeutic for the child (and the whole family). WOW, what a tough subject……
    Thanks again for your courage and thoughtfulness ….

  5. Teresa says

    A very nice, thoughtful, article – thank you.

    As one of four children who lost our mother (age 7), there were many things noted that would have eased the transition. Alas, that was four and a half decades ago and things very different then.

    I would like to encourage extended family to keep in touch with these children, by visiting or even by an occasional letter . When I lost my mother, I lost most of her family as well.

    Finally, if you have children and have lost someone to cancer, for the sake of your children, please do not be hasty in your quest for a permanent replacement caregiver (spouse). Please make sure the person you involve in your child's life is genuine and compassionate and does not have substance abuse issues.

    • says

      Thank you for your comment, Teresa. I'm so sorry that you had to face this and so much more, it sounds like, at such a young age. Take good care.

  6. Patricia Harkness says

    Being the parent of two children who were in highschool when their dad died, I can tell you based on my children; it is very complicated and very difficult for a teen to lose their dad. My eldest daughter did not try to make herself safe. She grieved by letting her straight A grades slip, giving up a complete scholarship to college, and getting in with the wrong crowd. She slipped into the dangerous world of drugs, refused counseling, and was generally very angry. She spent 10 years in and out of rehab and never did accept counseling. She finally got a college degree, and has almost finished a masters degree in Social Work, but she still grieves over her dad 17 years later. She is marrying this spring and it has opened the scab again as he is not here to walk her down the aisle.

    Her sister on the other hand was the "good child". She never gave me any problems, did what she was supposed to, went to college, got a job; but, she also never accepted counseling, and now at 30, she still lives at home and is holding so much grief; I do not know how to really reach her.

    I really believe it is easier to lose a parent very young before a child really "knows" them then for a teen who is dealing with so much at that age. Their dad was wonderful. He treated them like queens and there is NO ONE who can fill his loss.

    So, we still struggle even though they now have a wonderful step father; they still cry, get angry, and basically break down at times thinking of their loss.

    Cancer is a s_____ disease. It takes and leaves a wasteland behind. Time definitely does not take away all wounds. They just go underground until something happens that brings them bursting to the surface again.

    I just wanted to share our dealing with cancer. It destroyed my faith in God for so long, and I am just now going back to church. I cry as I write this. It is so unfair and horrible for my young daughters who are now women. Never to have a father to walk them down the aisle, hold their first baby, counsel them in issues moms cannot, be there for so many firsts in their lives…I don't know what else to say except; I really do not know how you fully ever prepare for such a loss. You are the walking wounded and you must just push through it.

    Patricia

    • says

      Wow, Patricia. Thank you so much for sharing your story. I'm so, so sad to hear about how difficult it has been. You are so right: it is indeed terribly unfair. I am hopeful that your daughter will be able to find some peace as she ages. Thank you for sharing and take care.

  7. says

    Holly, This is truly a wonderful post and there are so many people who will benefit from it. Your friend is lucky to have someone like you who can transform your sadness and pain about her dying into such valuable lessons. XO