Death of a Parent
A parent is the source of life, a primary attachment figure, a nurturer, and a protector in a child's life. The death of a parent is a profound loss. Terminal illness and death bring about many changes in a child's life. These include additional caregivers, a grieving parent, and economic losses. In addition, there may be a change in housing and an additional member living with the family. The age and gender of the child, the temperament, the internal and external supports available, and the conditions that follow the death all affect the child's short- and long-term ability to adjust.
Children respond to a parent's terminal illness and death in a variety of ways. Some typical reactions include denial, anger, intense attachment to the surviving parent, idealizing the lost parent, fantasizing the parent's return, personal suffering to force the return of the parent, and regressive behavior. Children may demand to be cared for and feel anger against the world (Adams-Greenly and Moynihan, 1983).
The loss of a parent is more confusing and difficult for the young child whose cognitive functioning does not allow adequate processing of the situation (Furman, 1974). Children five and under have a limited conception of death and do not see death as final. They see the world from an egocentric viewpoint (Pia get, 1963). They often think that they have caused the death by making too much noise, saying a cruel word to their parent, or even having a bad thought. For young children, cause and effect are based on two things that occur at the same time called transductive thinking. For example, a loud thunderstorm the night a parent dies could be the cause of the death.
Children from six to eight or nine recognize that death happens and is final, but think of it as happening to someone else. Their sense of reality is limited. Terms requiring abstract thinking, like heaven, are confusing, as discussed later in this chapter. The death of a parent greatly intensifies children's sense of helplessness (Furman, 1974).
The immediate grief reactions of young children are milder and of shorter duration than those of adolescents, but the long-term consequences of psychiatric disturbances are greater for young children (Rutter, 1984). When children under age eleven lose the same-gender parent, they are at risk for emotional problems all of their lives. Boys have a higher rate of emotional pathology than girls (Institute of Medicine and the National Academy of Sciences, 1984).
When the death is caused by murder, children feel intense rage and often want revenge. They may express terror in their environment (Turkington, 1984). In particular, when the killer is not apprehended, emotional pathology is more likely.
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