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Phyllis R. Silverman Ph.D.

What is Lost When a Parent Dies

parent's death for pre-school child centered on self loses caretaker

What is Lost when a Parent Dies

As we try to understand how children react to the death of a parent we need to look at several factors. The most common aspect of their grief, that is usually considered, is how well they understand the concept of death. We ask if they understand that it is final, that the deceased will no longer move, see or think, as they once did. As children approach adolescence they begin to understand that death is universal, that is, that we all die. There are however, other aspects of how children respond that we need to consider as well. A key factor in my thinking is how the children experience the loss; that is, what do they feel they have lost with the death. This takes us into issues of how they experienced their parent, that is, do they know him or her in terms of what they did for the child, for the role they played in their lives or as a separate person with an identity of their own. This leads to asking what role did they see the deceased parent playing in their lives, and in what way do they experience others in their lives. I have divided what children experience as lost into three age groups: Pre-school, school age, and adolescence. Surely there are many differences in between. Focusing on specific age groups is a place to start, as the surviving parent tries to understand their children's reactions and how to answer their questions. Parents need to understand that children's reality has a logic, consistency, and integrity of its own. The meaning children make may seem strange to adults, if we do not consider that it reflects their age, stage of development, and experience in life.

I have noted in other blogs that when someone dies, we not only lose the person who died but a relationship and the sense of self that existed in that relationship. The question is how do children at various ages experience a relationship. Is it related to their age, so that as they mature their perception of others changes as well? We always need to keep in mind that as children mature they will move from one place to another developing a different view of who died. This relates to children's growing ability to reflect on their own behavior and the role of others in their lives. In this blog I want to talk about the reactions of young children in the pre-school period of development. I will look at school age children and adolescents in my next blog.

Pre-school children (usually under the age of 3) sense of self depends on the presence of others. Their sense of safety in the world depends on others being available to take care of them. They need concrete persons to love them and maintain their sense of well being. They need to feel well cared for in the moment. They cannot reflect on their own behavior beyond the moment They cannot distinguish between inner or outer feelings. They cannot understand that their parent has feelings of their own, and that dying was not a volunteer act. They need to be told that the cause of their parent's absence has nothing to do with them. They miss the parent's presence, their holding them, giving them presents, feeding them, taking care of them, making them feel secure in the world. When they talk about the parent they focus on what the parent did for them, and with them. Over time they begin to recognize that their parent is not coming back, and accept the care of a surrogate parent. They focus on the need to be cared for, and not to be left alone.

Pre-school and kindergarten age children in the 4 to 6 year range, have more patience, and begin to recognize and acknowledge their own behavior, impulses, and perceptions. However, they are not able to see fully that they can control these feelings and impulses. Children in this age group can recognize that people exist separately from themselves. With difficulty they can take another person's point of view or at least understand that this view could be different from their own. At this age they are much clearer about who died and the sense of loss in their lives. While death is an unclear concept they are much clearer about their dead parent's role in their lives, emphasizing what the parent did for them, and with them. These children are still the center ,of their own world. They focus on death as separation and are aware that with it comes sadness. They learn this from what they see in others. They typically experience only one feeling at a time. They can only begin to distinguish between inner feelings and stimulations from the outside. At this age, they become aware that their family is different from that of their friends, especially if they were very young when their parent died. They can begin to ask questions about what happened to their parent and where they are. They still focus on others to take care of them, to frame their world, and to provide feedback about who they are.

What do these children need? They need to hear the word dead, they need to hear in a gentle quiet way that their parent is not coming back, although we can understand why they would like that to happen. It was not Daddy or Mommy's choice. A simple explanation of what happened is appropriate, for example, Daddy was sick and sometimes the doctors can't fix the problem. Focusing on words and asking how they feel may be very frustrating for the surviving parent because they may not reach their child in this way. They need to focus on hugs, respecting their child's wish not to be left alone, their child's need to know where their surviving parent is, and how they can be found if they leave for a bit. Drawing pictures together, trying to replicate some of what mommy or daddy did with and for their child helps. Their child needs to feel cared about, and safe.

If their parent can't provide this care at the moment then someone the child knows can serve as surrogate. Sometimes it can be a friend, an older sibling, a relative, who over time can be there for the younger children. If someone calls who the child knows and they ask how they can help you can ask them to take your little one to a playground, to have a play date to be with other children. Visiting the Children's Room of a local library can be very helpful to find books that helps them understand something more about whawt dying means. We are not talking only about the first days after a death but in the months that follow. Children need the sense of safety and respect over time. As a young child we may think that they are not mourning- but in their own way they are. They need to experience that there is some continuity in their lives, and that they are cared about. They experience relationships in terms of what people do for and with them, to help them maintain their sense of being safe in their world.


About the Author

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