Helping a Child Grieve the Death of a Parent

Author: ecobear | Date Posted: 5th September 2017 | Category: Grieving

A child facing the death of a parent represents one of the most traumatic and challenging experiences a person can face during the course of a lifetime. A child is best able to engage in healthy grieving and successfully carry on with life after the death of a parent with the proper support of other primary people in that child’s life. This includes a surviving parent as well as other adults that play a primary role in that young person’s life.

There are some important factors that you need to bear in mind when you are in the life of a child who has lost his or her parent. By recognizing and understanding these factors, you will be in the best possible position to provide meaningful and healthy support to a child who has lost his or her parent.

A Child's Understanding of Death

The manner in which a child responds to and understands the death of a parent depends largely on three interrelated factors: age of a child, life experiences of a child, and developmental status of a child. Time and again, adults that are left to assist a child grieve the loss of his or her parent place too much emphasis on one of the factors and not enough on the other two. Indeed, time and again you will hear an adult state that a child is “too young” to really understand what has occurred when a parent has passed on. In the alternative, you very well may hear that a child is “old enough” to fully appreciate what is meant by the death of a parent.

In reality, the chronological age of a child is the least important of the three factors that need to be considered when you try to appreciate how a specific child understands death. The other two elements, the life experiences of a particular child and the developmental state of status of that young person are the paramount factors to be taken into consideration.

A comprehensive research study by Mark W. Speece, Ph.D., has analyzed how and when a child comes to fully understand death. Spence is an Assistant Professor in the Department of Internal Medicine and the School of Medicine of Wayne State University. He entitled his exhaustive examination of the subject “Children’s Concepts of Death.”

As a prelude to examining how a child comes to understand and comprehend death, including the passing of a parent, Speece notes that death itself is not what he references a “single construct.” Rather, death is a multi-faceted reality that includes universality, irreversibility, non-functionality, and causality. These elements actually preexisted the Spence study. Spence himself maintains that fifth elements should be added to the concept of death, which he calls non-corporeal continuation.

At the heart of Speece’s study on a child’s concept of death is the determination that a minor simply does not fully appreciate the concept of death, the reality of death, until he or she understands five factors enumerated a moment ago. In other words, before a child can truly understand the reality, the consequences, of his or her parents death, the minor must appreciate that all people die. A child must recognize that death cannot be reversed. A child needs to grasp that death is the complete cessation of physical functions. A child must also understand the underlying cause of dying and death.

Finally, cultures in which the possibility of some sort of existence after physical life on Earth, appreciating non-corporeal continuation does come into play. A child who generally appreciates the four factors just explained has reached a fairly complete understanding of death if he or she believes or recognizes that some sort of existence beyond the physical body is conceivable. This intellectual construct differs from a simplistic belief that a deceased person may come back to life, body and all.

The Speece study, as well as one 30 years earlier, concluded that the age range in which a child has a truly mature understanding of death is broad. Generally speaking, a child who is 12 years old will have a generally mature understanding of death. However, that is not always the case.

What is most striking about these studies is that a child as young as four may satisfy the elements enumerated previously which leaves this very young person with what generally is considered a mature understanding of death. The reality underscores that understanding what a child understands about death depends upon far more than the biological age of that young person.

Should a Child View a Parent in a Coffin?

A major question that oftentimes arises when a parent dies is whether or not a child should be permitted to view his or her parent in a coffin. A common custom in the United States, and many other countries around the world, is for a viewing of the deceased in advance of a funeral or memorial service. This typically is done at a wake, special time set aside for viewing at a funeral home, or during a Rosary in the Catholic Church.

This is one area in which adults commonly default to the age of a child to make a decision regarding viewing the remains of a deceased parent. For example, an adult may conclude that because Susie is 10, she is old enough to view the remains of her deceased parent.

The reality is that, because of the life experiences of a child, coupled with his or her developmental status, one 10-year old may be in a position to view the remains of a parent, another one may not be appropriately situated to do so.

By applying the information set forth in child’s understanding of death section of this article with a child in question, a preliminary decision can be made if a viewing is appropriate. You need to understand that this is only part of the equation when it comes to viewing a deceased parent.

Adults can and should make a determination that a viewing should not occur if a child is not developmentally at a stage where the process will be beneficial. If a child is thought to be developmentally at a juncture where viewing is acceptable, the child must be approached to determine what he or she desires to do.

A trusted adult, usually the other parent, sits down with the child and discusses the process associated with the planned viewing in regard to the deceased parent. As noted before, the viewing is likely to be part of the overall funeral and memorial services.

The conversation must be one in which a child is presented with age-appropriate options. For example, a child may indicate that he or she is uncomfortable viewing a deceased parent in a public setting, like a wake. Nonetheless, a child may want to have the final opportunity to see his or her parent.

Funeral homes are adept at arranging private viewings of a deceased person, including for a child. You need to let a child know that this is an option.

You need to alert other family members about a whether a child will or will not be viewing the remains of a deceased parent. If you are the surviving parent and determined that viewing is acceptable, you do not owe other people any justification for the decision. Altering others does not equate with providing a detailed explanation of why the surviving child will be viewing his or her parent.

Leave plenty of time to permit a child the opportunity to think about what he or she wants to do. In other words, don’t raise this issue while in the car on the way to the funeral home or church.

As a final thought, you cannot insist that a child view a deceased parent. In addition, you should not make statements to encourage a child to make a decision one way or another regarding viewing a parent.

Preparing a Child for a Funeral

Planning and attending the funeral or memorial service for a deceased parent can prove to be an important experience for a child, particularly a young person who is in his or her pre-teen and teenage years. There are a number of points that you need to bear in mind when it comes to preparing a child for a parent’s funeral or memorial service.

As much as is reasonably possible, the surviving parent and others charged with planning a funeral should involve a child in the process. Most churches and funeral homes have protocols in place through which a surviving child’s thoughts can be taken into account when it comes to planning and executing a funeral.

Depending on the nature of a funeral or memorial service, including a child in the service can a wise decision for many reasons. First, including a child in the service is a prefect tribute for the deceased parent. Second, provided a child is given an appropriate role in a funeral, that involvement alone can prove useful in aiding a child to grieve in a healthy manner.

A teenage child, who is comfortable doing so, could do a reading at the funeral or present remarks about the parent or an eulogy. If a child can sing, that is always an option. Again, whatever role a child may play in a funeral or memorial service must be something for which a child is comfortable.

As an aside, even if a child wants to attend a funeral, and is of an appropriate developmental stage to do so, you need to separately discuss burial with a young person. There are instances in which a child is emotionally able to attend a funeral, but not equally prepared to take part in the burial of a parent.

Continuity is Crucial When a Parent Dies

One of the most important steps a person can take to support a child when a parent dies is ensuring continuity in that child’s life. Of course, there will be an interruption to regular routines in the immediate aftermath of a parent’s death. However, that does not mean that all aspects of a child’s day to day activities should be upended completely.

For example, if the family has a solid tradition of coming together for the evening meal, that should continue to occur even in the aftermath of a parent’s death. While it may seem on the surface that activities like dinner don’t seem that significant, by continuing them following a parent’s death, the child receives a message that the world has not completely ended, no matter how tragic the loss of a parent.

Daily schedules will be influx after the death of a parent, through the funeral and burial. Once the funeral and burial have occurred, a conscious effort should be made to get a child back on a routine schedule that is as similar to what existed before to a parent’s death.

The key underlying reason why continuity after death of a parent is important for child is that it provides the child with a meaningful connection to the deceased parent in many cases. This type of connection is demonstrated helpful in allowing a child the ability to move onward through a healthy grieving process.

Keep Lines of Communication with Child Open

One of the most important steps a person can take to support a child when a parent dies is ensuring continuity in that child’s life. Of course, there will be an interruption to regular routines in the immediate aftermath of a parent’s death. However, that does not mean that all aspects of a child’s day to day activities should be upended completely.

For example, if the family has a solid tradition of coming together for the evening meal, that should continue to occur even in the aftermath of a parent’s death. While it may seem on the surface that activities like dinner don’t seem that significant, by continuing them following a parent’s death, the child receives a message that the world has not completely ended, no matter how tragic the loss of a parent.

Daily schedules will be influx after the death of a parent, through the funeral and burial. Once the funeral and burial have occurred, a conscious effort should be made to get a child back on a routine schedule that is as similar to what existed before to a parent’s death.

The key underlying reason why continuity after death of a parent is important for child is that it provides the child with a meaningful connection to the deceased parent in many cases. This type of connection is demonstrated helpful in allowing a child the ability to move onward through a healthy grieving process.

When it comes to appreciating the importance of a child communicating to others after he or she lost a parent, three key points must be borne in mind:

  • after the death of a parent, a child will want to tell his or her story
  • the process of storytelling by a child is considered a healing experience
  • a key way an adult can help a grieving child is to listen to his or her story

You also need to understand that a child’s desire to communicate after the death of a parent will be an evolving process. Directly after a parent dies, a child may not really know what to say or ask. As time passes, even what really may amount to a short amount of it, a child is likely to want to talk at least a bit more.

If a child completely withdraws, a parent or other adult will want to take the initiative to reach out and gently encourage a child to communicate at his or her own speed. An adult needs to appreciate the difference between a child wanting some time alone, which is natural and healthy, and a child who is closing off to other people and the situation at hand.

Ensure a Child Gets Honest and Complete Answers to Questions

As part of the communication process a child who has lost a parent is likely to begin to have questions. Many of the questions will be closely associated with the developmental status and life experiences of a child.

The surviving parent, or another adult, needs to strive to ensure that answers to a child’s questions are honest, clear, and direct. You need to formulate responses to a child’s questions that recognize a young person’s developmental status and life experiences. Many people shortcut this requirement to making sure the answers to a child’s questions about a deceased parent are age appropriate. Keep in mind, as mentioned previously, age really is the least important of the trio of elements that include age, developmental statue, and life experiences.

Lying to a child in response to a question generally is unhelpful in both the short and the long term. Again, you do not need to provide inaccurate information. You can provide a child with accurate information, in a manner that is consistent with that child’s understanding of death.

Summary

When speaking to a boy whose mother had passed on after a battle with cancer, Prince William, the son of Princess Diana, remarked: “Time makes it easier. But, I still miss my mother every day and it’s 20 years after she died.”

In the final analysis, the ultimate objective of supporting a child who has lost his or her parent is to assist the young person to grieve in the healthiest manner possible. As is the case with Prince William, a child never fully gets beyond the untimely loss of a parent. Nonetheless, a child can grow up and lead a productive life. A child likely will miss a parent every day, including as he or she becomes an adult. But, in the end, those reflections will include fond memories of time spent with that child’s parent.

Submit a Comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

Pin It on Pinterest