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.