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How Children Cope With Parental Death - Jul 9, 2009

Childhood Heartbreak: How Children Cope with Parental Death

July 9, 2009

Dr. Sylvia Gearing, TXA 21 News

Millions of Americans were deeply saddened by the sudden death of pop icon, Michael Jackson. His daughter's heartfelt words reminded us that such losses always involve two victims--the parent and the child. Here to tell us more about childhood grief and what you can do to help a grieving child is TXA 21 News Contributing Psychologist, Dr. Sylvia Gearing.

Q: How difficult is this kind of loss for children?

Safety and Security Threatened: There are few traumas as severe as losing a parent in childhood. We are at our most vulnerable as children and we rely on the stability of parents to guide us through a confusing and dangerous world. With parental death, the familiar guardian of safety, shelter and security has vanished exposing us to overwhelming anxiety. In some cases, that anxiety can transform into serious trauma conditions that last a lifetime.

Long Term Health Issues: Losing a parent in childhood causes a disruption in normal childhood development as the child grieves the parent and adjusts to a new normal. The long-term implications of parental loss are severe and include compromised mental and physical health, depression, substance abuse and even increased suicide risk.

Broken Hearts and Impaired Immunity: Cardiac issues in adulthood are correlated with the loss of a parent. In one study, a significant number of coronary patients had suffered the loss of a father between the ages of five and seventeen. Bereavement compromises the immune system and reduces resilience.

Q: At what age are children most impacted by a parent's death?

There is no good age to lose a parent but we know that the impact increases once the child really understands what they are facing--a forever separation. Prior to age three, babies will miss a familiar presence but not understand the concept of permanent absence. A preschooler may talk about the death but expect the parent to return. By age 9 to 10, the child is completely aware. He has usually developed an understanding that death is permanent, irreversible and final.

Q: What does normal grieving differ from traumatic grieving?

Normal Grief:

  • Tearfulness: Tearfulness is common at first but dissipates after a few weeks. However, 13% of kids still cry daily or weekly after one year has passed.
  • Sadness, anger, guilt about the death
  • Appreciation and Identification with Parent
  • Sleep and Appetite Problems
  • Withdraw from Family/Friends
  • Physical Complaints (headache, stomach ache, etc.)
  • Return to Earlier Behaviors (Bedwetting, Clinging to Parents, School Refusal)
  • Acceptance of the Death: They accept the reality and permanence of death and adjust to their new identity of their life without their parent.
  • Continuing with Normal Development

Traumatic Grief

  • Intrusive memories About the Death: Nightmares, guilt, and obsessive rumination about the events that are intrusive and disruptive.
  • Avoidance and Numbing: Withdrawal, denying turmoil, avoiding reminders of the person, the way he died, etc.
  • Physical or Emotional Symptoms of Increased Arousal: Irritability, anger, difficulty sleeping, decreased concentration, increased vigilance, grades dropping, fears about safety for oneself or others.

Q: Since these losses often affect the child's entire community, what happens when the other parent is mourning?

It is vital to remember that the child often loses the emotional availability of the other parent and of the relatives who are similarly devastated. Emotional neglect, whether intentional or not, is common. The parent's loss can inflict untold suffering on the child who is struggling to regain his psychological "footing" in a world that has been rearranged. The remaining parent may cycle in and out of depression remaining unaware of his child's agony. The child may conclude that he has emotionally lost both parents. The most startling statistic involves the risk of suicide. It is seven times greater among children who have lost both parents than for those kids where there is no such disruption.

Q: What can parents do to help kids going through this kind of situation?

Educate Yourself: Be aware of the difference between normal and traumatic grief. The entire community needs to watch the child and remain vigilant about symptoms Remember that the child needs safety, information and guidance in creating a new identity without the parent.

Model Emotionally Intelligent Grief: The child will take his cue from you so make sure your words are measured, thoughtful and calm. Assure your child that the departed parent is fine, that life will go on and that you are not going anywhere.

Provide Children with Emotional Support: Children at different ages may need different types of support. Younger kids may need more cuddling, attention, patience and understanding. Older kids will need reassurance of your stability, of the continuity of home and hearth, and of your dedication to creating a new family.

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