Raising Grieving Children

How children can survive the death of a loved one.

Remembering when a parent died

Confused about accepting the new reality, teens learned to cope


It is not often that I have the chance to read, in one week, two articles about the impact of their father's death on young men. These articles provided a unique perspective on the meaning of these deaths, years before, when the writers were 12 and 10 years old. The first article I read was Michael Zimmerman's address at Harvard's winter graduation. His talk was published this past week in the May - June issue of Harvard Magazine. He talked about his reaction to his father's death when he was 12 years old. He talked about his confusion and his silence afterwards and the trouble he kept getting into, that in the end led him to a court hearing. He also talked about the other things he learned about his father at his father's funeral that he might not have known about otherwise. In his work as a lawyer, his father provided services to those who would not have received any help otherwise. Zimmerman's assignment to community service while in trouble in high school turned his own life around. He saw what he was doing as continuing his father's legacy. This legacy served him well as he continued to cope with his father's death, his own grief and his graduation from college.
Several days later I was reading the May 16th issue of Newsweek. I read an article by Max Giaccone who was 10 when his father died in the Towers on 9/11. He described his fear of not knowing what to expect when he heard the news. His disbelief that his father was really dead stayed with him throughout his high school years. What became important for him was to latch on to the things he did with his father. His mother knew that this would be helpful and encouraged the baseball coach, for example, to let him play shortly after the death. It was these activities that kept him going through high school. He was asked about his reaction to the death of Bin Laden. He writes, "I don't like to say I am celebrating from someone's death. I don't know what closure is-I don't know how it's supposed to feel. But it feels like something has been lifted. Knowing that the person who plotted to kill my father is off the face of the earth, that's a good feeling". Giaccone makes an important point when he says he doesn't know what closure is. Maybe that is because it is an unachievable goal.
Both of these young men, describing their experience reflected their disbelief in the finality of their father's death and their not really understanding "what hit them". Maybe that's what takes a long time. It is understanding that death is final and finding a place for it in their lives. In spite of their surviving parent trying to do her best to be there for them, they were confused and to some extent struggling alone with the changes in their lives. As they moved ahead with their lives, their feelings about this loss didn't end, their understanding and the meaning of the death in their lives changes and probably will continue to do so as they move ahead in their lives. If closure means that they can close the door on their grief, they recognize that this is not possible. They live comfortably with the death and their grief, but they are learning that it is always there and always changing.
All this took me back to my last blog in which I talked about the need to help children understand what grief is, and at the very least be able to give a name to what they are feeling. From a parent's point of view they need to recognize that the task of raising a grieving child takes time, takes understanding and much patience. The children may not have the words for what they feel or experience but it is really in many ways no different than what a parent is going through as well.
As I thought about children not understanding what death means and how it has changed their lives, and keeps changing as they get older, it also brought to my mind the children I meet at the Children's Room www.childrenroom.org .When they talk about participating in a peer group with other bereaved children they describe their excitement in not feeling so alone. Why is that so important if they have family and friends around them. Finding others like themselves, who have also experienced the death of a parent, seems to be very reassuring and leaves them with the feeling that there are others who understand what they are going through, and with whom they can share a common language. Here, there are others who know that the death of a parent is not something you get over in a day or a month or even a year and they know that you need each other. It's not going to be all better at once, and they are not alone on their journey.
Zimmerman wrote: " I have come to trust that sorrow and despair often signal the beginning of a great ascent. And that is because they leave us in the valley beneath the mountain. And it's in the climbing that we see again-as for the first time-everything we love about living."

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Phyllis R. Silverman, Ph.D., is a Scholar-in-Residence at Brandeis University Women's Studies Research Center.

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