Losing a parent is a difficult mood at any age. The death of a family member, no matter how old, can create a series of overwhelming and emotions. These feelings are usually in the form of shock, deep sadness, confusion, anxiety, and anger. For children dealing with the loss of an important value like parents, these intense emotions can be particularly difficult to process. Children in particular need surviving parents, caregivers or other trusted adults in their lives to cope with this grief. Below are an outline of how to treat a child who has lost a parent:
How to Talk to a Child About Death?
When it comes to death, even if the person is a child, it is difficult to discuss. However, experts say that it is wrong to soften it in a different way or to hide it from the child while explaining the issue of death. In this way, they explain that trying to protect the child by softening the issue can do much more harm. When explaining death, paying attention to the following styles can provide a positive explanation for the mental health of the child:
Language is important, so one must be aware of the words chosen:
Even with good intentions, the urge to use statements that cover the truth of death to explain death should be avoided. Expressions such as we lost our mother or our father asleep when explaining to the child may seem to soften the shock, but this approach can be confusing for children who are literally inclined to take things.
Psychologist Kate Zera Kray had a teenage patient who described how her family coped with a significant death years ago. This young patient lived through a period when he was afraid of falling asleep when he was young, and he was afraid that one of his loved ones or himself would not wake from this sleep. Because the death of one of his parents was told by softening it as sleeping. Instead, one should adhere to a simple and direct explanation. Words like dead and killed should not be hesitated to use even if they seem harsh. According to the licensed clinical social worker and director Barr-Harris, when explaining death to adolescent children, it can be said with phrases such as the father’s heart was not beating and the heart must work in order to survive.
One should be honest about the nature of death, taking into account the age of the child:
It is desirable to be as simple as possible about how his parents died, but this should be to an appropriate degree for the child’s age and developmental stage. Going into too much detail can strain the child’s mind, so explanations should be accurate but short. According to Ellen Roese, a licensed clinical social worker specializing in grief, withholding the facts can erode their confidence as children learn more about death.
Young children between the ages of 3 and 5 may have trouble understanding the permanence of death. Schiffman says that when a child is told that his deceased parent is gone, he will wait at the window an hour later for that parent to come home. Because children at this age also have a way of thinking called magical thinking. Therefore, they may believe that they are somehow responsible for their parents ‘death because of what they say, what they think, or the parents’ inability to bring them back to life. Therefore, children at this age should be made sure that their parents understand that they did not cause death and that it is not some form of punishment.
The child should be encouraged to ask questions about death:
If the child wants to ask questions about what happened to their parents, this should be allowed. These questions will help them understand. The questions the child asks the other parent can provide insight into how they dealt with something. Adults assume that they know what their children are thinking or afraid of, and this is quite surprising, experts say. Yet all they have to do is listen to them.
How to Help a Grieving Child
It can be difficult to guide a child who has lost a parent while grieving. Helping a grieving child can also be helpful, as are therapist-supported recommendations below;
Children should be allowed to attend the funeral if they wish.
The child should never force him to go to a parent’s funeral. If they want to go, according to experts, they should be allowed to go. Giving the child the option to withdraw during this period can be valuable for their recovery if they wish. However, it is necessary to prepare them in advance for what they can see or hear if they want to look after their parents, for example, before they are buried. And they should be accompanied by someone they can be comfortable with while seeing their parents’ funeral. Because the other parent may not have the attention they need to give them the attention they need. And if the child at any point wants to leave that environment or take a break, they should be allowed to leave.
Later, it should be natural for the child to ask questions such as why his body is here if my parent has gone to heaven. According to experts, religion can dictate an answer, or one way to answer this kind of question is that the spirit of the mother, her love for you went to heaven, but her body remains on the ground.
It should be known that children experience different types of grief than adults:
Children experience grief differently than adults. Therefore, it is difficult to draw general conclusions about what the child is feeling or not feeling. For example, an emotional outburst in a moment of grief, although it may seem strange to the parent, is completely normal for children. Children have a limited tolerance for pain and will take breaks in their grief, laugh and play. Adults do not usually do this and therefore children are generally considered not to grieve at the time of grief.
Grief is a very individual process, so even children in the same family can be affected by death in different ways. Relationships, nuances, and a sibling’s coping with mourning can take different forms in the news of a death in which many family members are upset. And these different approaches may not be understood, but ideally a child’s situation should be respected and tolerated. While grieving children are visibly upset at a time, they may start laughing and playing the next minute.
Sometimes it is good for the child to see the other parent upset:
Parents should not feel pressured, such as hiding their emotions and always trying to be strong for their children. Because the person is going through an intense and emotional period, and therefore it is natural to feel sad. The other parent should never try to hide their tears because crying is a healthy condition and this modeling lets children know that crying is normal.
Try to be as consistent as possible in the child’s routine:
Continuing their daily routines after a loss helps the child to feel safe. This also means maintaining household rules and ensuring discipline as well. The predictability of the results helps the child feel safe. Before the child goes back to school, it should be ensured that teachers, counselors and administrators know what is happening. They can check in with the student, offer support, and note any changes in their behavior.
The child can be more attached to his parent:
It is common for a child who loses one parent to develop a fear of losing the other. This can mean preoccupation with the health and safety of the living parent. Often they may want to sleep next to the surviving parent or on the floor. They should be told and made to feel that their health is good and that they are there to take care of them.
In Which Situations Should Help be Obtained from the Therapist?
According to experts, the child may be asked to seek immediate support from a professional counselor, but sometimes it is better to let the child mourn on his own before talking to a therapist. The parent must wait a while to see how the child is doing. This can take from a few weeks to six months. Considering the magnitude of the loss, it should be known that there will be some changes in the child’s mood or behavior, and patients should be patient with them in situations such as regression in children’s behavior, having problems focusing on school, and disintegrating even in very small factors.
However, sometimes when these changes are intense or extreme, the child may need professional help. Below are some signs that may warrant consultation to the therapist if seen in children:
• If the child repeatedly refuses to talk about death and how he or she is feeling
• If the child has significant problems at school, such as behavioral problems, getting into trouble or failing lessons
• If the child changes drastically when sleeping or eating (too much or not at all)
• If the child has socially stopped playing with friends or is at a point where they want to quit sports and other extracurricular activities
• If the child threatens to harm himself, acts violently towards animals or other children
Ways to Keep Memories of the Lost Parent Alive
Finding ways to remember the deceased parent can be healing for both the surviving parent and the children. This may include, in the short term, allowing the child to attend some form of funeral or memorial service. For example, things like writing a letter, choosing family photos for display, drawing a picture for the parent can be done. Then it could mean planting a tree in the parent’s honor, visiting one of their favorite places, celebrating the parent’s birthday, framing the photos to hang in the bedroom or around the house, and simply talking about the person regularly and sharing something.
Creating a notebook or memory box can help the child feel connected to a deceased parent. This allows them to revisit their memories whenever they want. The child can be helped to prepare a memory box containing letters, cards, photographs and other memorabilia that remind their parents. Experts also suggested that they could create a memory book in the form of a collection of drawn or written feelings and thoughts that allows them to safely re-experience their memories.
Books can serve as useful tools to ensure that children can say about the deceased and open discussion. Children can share funny, happy or sad memories. But ultimately, it is up to the family to determine what works best for them. Since there is no right or single approach on this issue, dialogue, brainstorming and sharing can be achieved in the family.