My father died on a warm 1977 August day, six months after my twin sister and I were born. When a friend recently, genuinely asked me: “You don't remember your father at all then, right? Since you were so young?” I nodded my head in agreement. My heart, though, screamed a totally different response.
Do I remember the first time my mother held me after hearing the shocking news that her partner suddenly left the world?
Do I remember the last time I saw my father?
Can I recall my mother's pain?
How could a child possibly understand death?
That's the thing, though, death is an ingrained part of the identity of a child from the moment the loss is felt, whether the child (and adult) realize it. We can't dismiss all the brain took in during the early months and years before, during, and after the death of a loved one.
It is possible to help a child who has lost a parent
Below are a few insights into what your child might be experiencing in her life.
As a child who lost a parent as a baby, I experienced:
- Dreams about meeting my father
- Dreams about my father's accident and what I could have done to prevent it
- Dreams about my bed floating and subsequently breaking in the center
- Dreams about losing my mother
- Severe anxiety when my mother left town
- Verbal bullying. Kids can be cruel. Words, especially, can hurt. My sister once had a “friend” get angry at her by using the words: “You think everyone should take pity on you because your father is dead.” We were in 4th grade.
- Unfortunate experiences driven by adults. My sister and I once sat through a presentation on being safe around power lines, etc, and listened to the presenter walk the audience through our father's accident. Another example is from high school when my physics teacher in high school elaborated in detail about the impact of volts on the human heart.
- Assumptions from community members about our emotional and financial well being. Be ready for them.
What to Do to Help a Grieving Child
- Encourage writing and drawing stories
- Talk about the person
- Acknowledge the person and the loss
- Role play
- Ask questions and listen
- Tell stories about the day, the moments, the person
- Be aware of what “might” be happening in her mind and with her peers
- Communicate with adults, especially teachers, in your community.
As a child experiences life, the death of a loved one permeates the days. The death is a foundation, the center upon which that child's life is built. Many wonderful things come from adversity. Indeed, adversity often brings strength and goodness. Helping a child navigate adversity is our duty as adults in his life. A child's heart often screams a totally different response because he isn't able to formulate the words, or furthermore, the understanding required to articulate otherwise.
It's our job to help him.