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Children Losing a Parent

By: Beth Morrisey MLIS - Updated: 18 Dec 2018 | comments*Discuss
Children Child Bereavement Parent

The loss of a parent is a great blow to anyone, but for children it may be particularly emotional. Children may not be able to understand exactly what is happening when a parent dies and even if they do understand they may not be equipped yet to discuss their thoughts and emotions. Child bereavement, then, often benefits from the experience of trained grief counsellors and support groups for children who have lost a parent.

Children and Terminal Illness

There is no way to take away the pain of having a terminally ill parent, but keeping the illness from a child not only deprives him or her of some control in their world (knowing what will happen next with mummy or daddy), but it deprives him or her of the chance to make the most of the time left with the parent and to say goodbye in their own way. If you are facing the task of explaining a terminal illness to a child try to do it in several small talks. Children won’t be able to process everything about the situation all at once so don’t expect them to. Make it clear what death means, but also focus on what they can do in the time they have left or how they can honour their parent even after death. Expect some tears, tantrums or even indifference. Children are emotional and can only fit pieces together at their own speed, so expecting that they will react as an adult is just setting everyone up for disappointment.

Explaining the Loss of a Parent

Even if a child has been warned that a parent is terminally ill, the actual death and loss of a parent may still taken him or her by surprise. And of course this is also true of a child whose parent dies accidentally or otherwise without warning. It may be that a child doesn’t understand where the parent has gone, when the parent is coming back or why the parent didn’t take him or her away as well. These questions can be particularly poignant for the surviving parent or relative, but answering them is important. Each and every time a child asks about the loss of a parent their questions should be explained, even if it means saying the same thing over and over again. Exactly when and how a child will begin to understand the loss of a parent will be as unique as the child, so adults should remain patient and not feel that the child is being difficult or intentionally frustrating because their reactions and understandings do not fit a timeline of “normal” developments.

Children at a Funeral

Many people feel that a funeral is not a place for a child, but many others can’t imagine not taking a child to the funeral of a loved one. If you decide that your child would benefit from attending a funeral, explain to them prior to the event exactly what will happen. Explanations of the casket, and what is inside, may be particularly hard but it is important that children do not feel as though there is any mystery involved or that others know something about their deceased parent that they don’t. Adults should also remember that they will set an example for a child, so their behaviour at the funeral will be an indication of how the child should act. If a child does not want to attend a funeral then allowing them some special, private time to say good-bye may be an alternative.

Children and Bereavement

How each child will process his or her grief about the loss of a parent will be different. Adults should not tell children how they should feel, nor should adults expect children to progress through their grief as they would. Instead, adults should pay particular attention to a child’s actions since children can not verbalise as well as adults and investigate child grief counselling or support groups if it is thought that they might be beneficial. Surviving parents may find that their children become particularly clingy following the loss of a parent and while this may be perfectly normal, it may also be the catalyst for seeking outside expertise and support.

The loss of a parent is an event that will stay with a child for the rest of his or her life. To make sure that children do not feel confused or left out at this time, adults should take care to discuss every step with them and offer them choices about what they would like to do. Grief counsellors and support groups may be helpful throughout the loss of a parent.

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Yesterday i lost my soulmate, he died in my arms from a mystery illness. He never went to see a doctor. I'm carrying so much guilt from never trying harder, i wish i did. I've never felt like this before and right now its so difficult to comprehend why he left me so soon. There aren't enough words in this world to describe it all. Absolutely devastated.
lkm - 18-Dec-18 @ 3:00 PM
I would like to offer support , I lost step farther at 12 & mother at 15 with subsequent accidental shooting injury at 17 . Tracked down my birth farther who agreed to meet me but died 2 days before my marriage . Now in my 50s having worked my way to various employment positions as Property Director . If I can support anyone I would happily chat / meet , its more than possible to recover . I am married with 2 adult daughters living in London
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dianaperu468 - 25-May-18 @ 4:49 PM
I lost my dad when I was 9 years old, he was the best dad ever but before he died he had got stabbed but he was strong and he fighted to survive but sadly he lost his energy and some one my family know and hate had pushed my dad over a hill and I watched him die on us and I couldnt stop screaming and crying and the last words my dad said was 'i love you' when we got home we had a phone call and the hosptial said it wasnt good news and then when i saw him, you wouldnt have thought he was injured but a couple of hours he lost his strenght and I watched the machine turn off and I had to give him the biggest kiss on the cheek and tell him that I will see him soon, the next day I had school and I went for him because I knew he wouldnt want me to miss out school because he knew I was a strong girl. He will be sadly missed. Rest in peace angel x x
chanamarni - 16-Feb-16 @ 8:43 PM
Sorry for typos. "I have COME to understand" not "coffee" and "ALL the while ignoring and neglecting" not"ask".
jet - 25-Sep-15 @ 1:34 PM
My 7 and 11 year old stepchildren have recently lost their mother to murder. Neither one of them seemed too surprised as they had been living with the man who constantly abused their mom. They have cried once and that was when their father told them their mother had gone to heaven. We've had them going to counseling for two months but had to stop due to school and the location of the counselor being across state lines where they were under the custody of their maternal grandparents. They are both doing really well in school and seem perfectly fine. I'm not an expert though so I'm wondering if I should put them back into counseling even though neither one of them seems to be showing any signs of distress in any aspect of their lives? I should also mention that after their mother passed they were really excited that they would "finally get to live with" me and their father. I have coffee to understand that they are relieved to no longer have to live in that home where they watched their mom and her boyfriend do drugs and beat on each other ask the while ignoring and neglecting the kids which included a newborn that my stepdaughter took care of basically on her own for them. I guess my question again is if they are totally happy being with us and doing great with school and life should i put them back into counseling?
jet - 25-Sep-15 @ 1:30 PM
My children have lost two fathers, - one biological whom they were not close to- and their stepdad whom they were extremely close to.Now that he is dead andof course, does not come to family get togethers, I am completely estranged from my children.They will not speak to me or invite me to any family things or allow me to see my grandchildren.I can no longer give big financial gifts- which they resent, because I am living on a single income now.He left me no money- just debts.I have learned not to cry anymore about this and will move away from this area next year when I retire.Less painful for me.I need to have my own life.Their lives do not include me in them.This is indeed the most difficult part of grief. The people that I thought would be there for me- my own flesh and blood children do not want me in their lives.So painful.
jan - 21-Sep-14 @ 10:41 PM
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