Death of a Parent (page 2)
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.
What to Tell Children
The parent is a model for the child. What the parent says and how he or she acts during this period sets the stage for the child's feelings, behavior, and adjustment. It is important for the parent to listen to the child, try to answer questions, even to say that he or she does not know, and to show love and concern. The teacher can assist parents in finding the appropriate resources to help their child.
The child should be an active participant in the family's changing activities and schedules occurring before, during, and after the death. Unusual telephone calls and visitors should not be kept a secret for the child to worry about. If the parent is ill before dying, children should know what is happening at a level of their understanding. Maybe say, "Mommy is very sick. We will try to see what we could do to help. What do you think you could do? Maybe you could read her your storybook." It is important for the child to be able to see or visit the ill parent, just as it is for adults. What you tell children and how you answer their questions vary with the situation. When young children want to know more, they usually ask. This is not always true for older children.
The parent is truthful but uses words and phrases that are understandable to each child. It is confusing to younger children to say that Mommy went to heaven. They will wonder what heaven is and where it is. Some children may wonder if Mommy will be floating up there and looking down on them. Will this become a punishing conscience for a child? A youth may understand as much as an adult about heaven, but will be disturbed by any discrepancy in what the parent says and what he or she believes. And of course, never say that the parent was so good that God wanted her or him in heaven. If death is equated with sleep, the child may be afraid to go to bed. The Christian prayer, Now I lay me down to sleep, I pray the Lord my soul to keep, if I should die before I wake, I pray the Lord my soul to take, can cause concern even for a young child who has not just lost a parent.
© ______ 2004, Merrill, an imprint of Pearson Education Inc. Used by permission. All rights reserved. The reproduction, duplication, or distribution of this material by any means including but not limited to email and blogs is strictly prohibited without the explicit permission of the publisher.
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