The Death of a Parent: Working With Grieving Children and Teens

The death of a parent is the most elemental loss that a child can experience.  Many in our culture believe that children cannot understand death and lack the capacity to grieve.  Because of this misconception, coupled with confusion and anxiety in communicating with children about death, children are often told that the dead parent has simply “gone away.”  Shielding children from death deprives them of the ability to grieve and ultimately heal.

The age and stage of development of a child at the time of his or her parent’s death will strongly influence the ways in which the child reacts and adapts to the loss.   An understanding of the child’s emotional and cognitive development can enable caregivers and professionals to determine how best to communicate about death with the particular child, to understand and empathize with the child’s experience and guide the child through the grieving and healing process.

The Interdependence of Grief and Development

Childhood grief and development are interdependent:  the early death of a parent affects a child’s development, and the child’s development affects how he or she will grieve and reconstruct his or her relationship with the deceased parent.  Furthermore, children re-experience their grief as they reach each milestone in their development.  The deceased parent is a “missing piece” (quoting the poem by Shel Silverstein) that the child needs to reconstruct in order to provide himself with a “history of his past that he could then build on, alter and modify with changing developmental concerns….During each succeeding developmental stage, he may need to step back and…reconstitute the missing piece” (Garber, 1988, p. 272).

Capacity to Grieve and Understand Death’s Finality

There has been much controversy concerning when children develop the capacity to grieve and understand the finality of death.   Some believe that a child cannot truly grieve until adolescence, when he or she has become “fully differentiated” and has achieved the cognitive level of formal operational thinking.  In contrast John Bowlby, in his studies of attachment, believed that infants as young as six months experience grief reactions similar to those of adults.  Some theorists believe that the capacity to grieve begins at the cognitive stage of object permanence, around the age of one and one-half to two, while others believe that this capacity begins at approximately three years old, when the child has reached the psychological stage of object constancy, i.e., “a coherent mental representation of important attachment figures.” (Worden, 1996, pp. 9-10, citing Bowlby (1963, 1980) and R. Furman (1964)).

A child’s ability to understand the meaning and finality of death corresponds to his or her cognitive development.  A three to five year old, in the preoperational stage, believes that the deceased person has gone away and will return at some point.  Thus, it is common for a child of this age to constantly ask questions such as “Where’s Daddy?”  and “When is Mommy coming home?” A child of five to approximately nine years of age, in the concrete operational stage of cognitive development believes that death can be avoided.  Furthermore, a child in this egocentric phase also believes that his or her parent died because either the parent was bad or the child was bad, and that if the child is good, the parent can return.  This is thus seen as one of the most vulnerable and difficult developmental stages for adjusting to a parent’s death. The child at this stage needs someone who can clarify what the child is thinking and feeling, can reframe events to make them more understandable, can reassure and build self-esteem by praising the child’s accomplishments and by emphasizing the child’s importance.  Research has found that children over the age of nine generally have a realistic understanding of the inevitability and finality of death.  However,  although children over nine years of age understand death’s finality, their reactions to a parent’s death is determined by their cognitive and emotional level of development and other factors such as gender and the relationship with the surviving parent.

Tasks of Children’s Mourning

The noted grief counselor and expert J. William Worden has identified four tasks of mourning:  (1) accepting the reality of the loss, (2) experiencing the pain and emotional aspects of the loss, (3) adjusting to an environment without the deceased, and (4) relocating the dead person in one’s life.  The satisfactory completion of these tasks depends on both the child’s stage of development at the time of the death and his or her adaptability and ability to attend to any unfinished tasks at later stages of development.

Accepting the Reality of the Loss

A child can accept the reality of losing a parent when he or she understands, through the achievement of operational thinking, “the nature of abstractions such as finality and irreversibility” (Worden, 1996, p 13, citing Piaget, 1954).  Some grasp of such abstractions is possible during the concrete operational stage of cognitive development, and is only fully understood at the formal operational stage.  Thus, if a parent dies before formal operational cognition has been achieved, the child will experience a deeper level of grief when he or she attains that cognitive stage and fully and deeply comprehends the finality and irreversibility of the loss.  This usually occurs in early adolescence, another  particularly vulnerable time in the process of adjusting to a parent’s death and in overall development.  Christ (2000, pp. 190-91) calls the adolescent’s profound experience of his or her loss due to the attainment of formal operational thinking, coupled with adolescent developmental tasks such as separating from family, negotiating a more adult relationship with the surviving parent, finding one’s identity and true values and deepening relationships with peers “daunting challenges for adolescents that often exacerbate pre-existing vulnerabilities.”

Experiencing the Pain and Emotional Aspects of the Loss

The pain and emotion involved with death, generally called the mourning process, can be frightening for a child both to experience and to witness in others.  Awareness of the child’s capacity based on his or her stage of emotional development to cope with strong emotions is important.  For example, as noted above, children of approximately five to seven years of age are very vulnerable.  They can understand death’s permanence on some level, but lack the ego strength and socialization to deal with the intensity of the loss.  It is therefore important for the surviving parent and others in the child’s life to model and express their grief without overwhelm, so that the child can be less afraid of his or her own feelings.  The egocentric magical thinking of children at this age compounds that vulnerability when they believe that they were somehow the cause of the death and that they can do something about it.  It is therefore important for grief therapists and the child’s caregivers to assure children at this vulnerable stage that they were not the cause of their loved one’s death.

Adjusting to an Environment without the Deceased Parent

This task is an ongoing process through progressive stages of development as well as important transitions throughout one’s lifetime.  The child– as well as the adult he or she will become –  re-experiences his or her grief at each stage of development as a result of his or her growing cognitive abilities, and also as he or she comprehends the vacuum left by the dead parent, who is not there to nurture and support the child’s growth and achievements.  In addition, the child’s grief will be experienced, and the loss of the parent acutely felt, at times of life transitions such as birthdays, graduation, leaving home, marrying and having a child of one’s own.   It is thus important that parents, caregivers and therapists not minimize the reoccurrence of grief, but to support the child or adult through this new stage of adjusting to life without the parent.

Relocating the Dead Parent in One’s Life

As the child grows and changes, his or her relationship with the deceased parent also changes. Thus, according to Worden (1996), another ongoing task is to find new ways to memorialize the parent with the attainment of each developmental milestone:  The loss of a parent in a child’s infancy, especially if that parent was the primary caregiver, will inevitably lead to difficulties in attachment and trust, and consequent feelings of anger or  depression as the child grows and is unable to attach or become intimate with others.  In order for such an individual to successfully relocate and internalize the deceased parent, as well as complete Worden’s other tasks, he or she will need to transfer the process to other figures, such as a trusted teacher or therapist, in order to reconstruct his or her parental loss and the deceased parent’s place in his or her life, and it is the job of the grief therapist and others in the child’s life to support and facilitate that process.

The Many Faces of A Child’s Grief

Grief is not a “one size fits all” proposition.  Many factors affect a child’s grief process and adjustment to life without the dead parent.  Factors affecting the child’s grief and bereavement process include the gender of the child and deceased parent, the child’s relationship with the surviving parent, the effect of the death on the surviving parent, the preparation and information regarding the death accorded to the child and the family’s strengths and resources.  An understanding of these factors and of the child’s emotional and cognitive development is crucial for a therapist or caregiver to support the child’s completion of the tasks of mourning and enable him or her to internalize the “missing piece” through grieving and healing.

References

Baker, J.E. & Sedney, M.A. (1966). How Bereaved Children Cope with Loss:  An Overview.  In Corr & Corr (Eds.) , Handbook of Childhood Death and Bereavement. New York:  Springer Publishing Company.

Christ, G.H. (2000). Healing Children’s Grief:  Surviving a Parent’s Death from Cancer. New York: Oxford University Press.

Fogarty, J. (2000).  The Magical Thoughts of Grieving Children:  Treating Children with Complicated Mourning and Advice for Parents. Amityville, New York:  Baywood Publishing Company.

Garber, B. (1966).  Construction and Reconstruction in a Case of Parent Loss.  In Altschul, S. (Ed.) Childhood Bereavement and its Aftermath. Madison, Ct.:  International Universities Press.

Worden, W. (1996).  Children and Grief:  When a Parent Dies. New York:  Guildford Press.

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