Preventing child abuse for healthcare professionals

The Death of a Parent

Coping with the death of a parent is painful and challenging. The intense suffering triggered by death is one of the most frequent causes of trauma. Regardless of age, the grief process brings with it a unique set of obstacles. 

The older the bereaved, the higher the comprehension levels and the awareness of the permanence of a lost relationship. Conversely, younger mourners are less emotionally developed, limiting their ability to express emotions when coping with the death of a parent.  

Recommended course: Talking with Children About Death 

The age of understanding 

Opinions vary regarding the age at which a child can comprehend a parent’s death. Some adults believe a child needs protection and sheltering from the emotional distress surrounding the death of a loved one. Various approaches to shielding younger ones might include avoiding funerals, hiding emotions from them, or using economic language, such as explaining that ‘Grandma will be away for a long time.’ 

Many factors affect how a child grieves, including previous death experience. They may have faced the pain of losing a pet, or a classmate may have suffered bereavement. Negative experiences in a child’s formative years can lead to grave consequences. It is crucial they feel comfortable asking questions. Allow them to guide the way the conversation flows.  

The cycle of grief 

Children experience similar stages of grief as adults, such as those illustrated in Elizabeth Kübler-Ross’s Grief Cycle. The model includes the five stages of grief: denial, anger, bargaining, depression, and acceptance.  

The general acceptance is that an adult’s journey through the grief cycle is not always linear. For children, many believe they lack the cognitive ability to grasp the meaning of death, hindering their progression through the grief stages. 

However, a child can understand the concept of death and its finality from the age of six. They display grief in many forms, such as creative ways, like art. Meanwhile, others might ‘play up’ at home or school. These behaviors are reactions and can symbolize a child struggling with a parent’s death. 

Emotional reactions to the death of a parent 

The death of a parent has a profound impact on children’s lives in numerous ways. There is immediate turmoil, followed by alterations to various aspects of their lives, such as changes in childcare, relocating to a new home or neighborhood, and consequently, a change in school and social circle. All fundamental changes affect the emotional well-being of a child. 

Studies show that bereaved children show an increase in depression and PTSD. “The increased incidence of depression occurred mainly in the first 2 years after parental death and in youths whose parents died when they were age 12 or younger.” (The American Journal of Psychiatry, 2018). 

Bereavement reactions in children 

Throughout the bereavement process, children often exhibit a behavior called ‘‘puddle jumping.’ The metaphor describes the puddle as grief, which a child jumps in and out of while navigating through the stages of the grief cycle.  

Sudden waves of emotion can overwhelm a child as they jump into the grief puddle. Then, they swiftly jump out as they switch their attention to something else. The behavior is observed frequently throughout the day, particularly through the early stages of grief.  

Physical and behavioral reactions might include not sleeping or eating, crying, having tummy aches, asking questions repeatedly, and showing signs of guilt. Bereaved offspring might display social reactions like withdrawal, shyness in front of strangers, separation anxiety, disinterest in surroundings and friends, and a lack of concentration. 

Guiding children through the grieving process 

All children need guidance through the grieving process, whether dealing with the loss of a parent, pet, or grandparent. Like adults’, children’s grief is complex. They learn by copying the emotional and behavioral responses of those around them. Therefore, being open and honest about feelings is necessary for them to work through their grief cycle.   

Listening is regularly undervalued yet is crucial as a primary communication tool. Mastering the skill is essential when assisting a child dealing with grief. Effective listening avoids miscommunication, promoting smooth dialogue and open conversation. It leads to a deeper understanding of a child’s challenges, better equipping adults to guide children through the process. 

Some families find solace and comfort in religion throughout the grieving process. However, if religion has not been of significance, introducing it when a child is suffering from the trauma of death could be a frightening concept.  

How to talk to children about death 

Terminology is key when talking to children about death. The use of simple words and terms avoids confusion. For example, ‘passed away’ or ‘went to sleep’ is unclear. A child may continue to expect the deceased to walk through the door. Straightforward explanations, like ‘their heart stopped beating,’ are easier to digest.   

If a child asks questions, answer as fully as possible. If conversation provokes emotions, it’s okay and better to describe the feelings, reassuring the child everything will be alright. 

Rather than avoiding the subject of funerals, guide the child through what takes place at a funeral service. Involving them in funeral arrangements, like choosing the flowers or music, can be beneficial. Keeping to routines helps maintain normalcy and shows that life goes on. 

When to seek grief counseling for children 

Grief is a natural reaction to death, with a devastating impact on lives. While there is no specific duration to grieve, there reaches a point when an adult perceives a child is struggling to cope with loss. If a child continues to show “symptoms that persist beyond six months or are very impairing, it can indicate that the child may need professional help to overcome his or her grief.” (Child Mind Institute, February 23, 2023) 

Symptoms of this persistent grief include anger, nightmares, lack of concentration, loss of appetite, and generally thinking the world is a scary place.   

Mental health professionals, counselors, and psychiatrists provide specialized assistance, offering valuable coping strategies to help deal with loss. Alternative options include group child therapy, which incorporates music and art as alternative avenues for bereaved children to interact and process their grief.