When a Parent Dies
A guide for patients and their families
Facts and feelings
Children need help to cope with their grief when a parent dies. The surviving parent is usually the main person who must provide the help a child needs in coming to terms with the death of the other parent. However, often the surviving parent is so involved and even incapacitated by their own grief that support from friends and relatives proves essential.
It is important that all those close to a bereaved child should be able to discuss how it was and how it is. Children need to have the facts and the feelings surrounding their loss confirmed often; for this reason it is also important to listen to what they have to say. They will probably need to hear and discuss things over and over again.
Check out what they think, correct and confirm the facts, help them accept their feelings. Above all accept their time scale - a child's grief can be spread over many years. It may also resurface in adulthood, especially at a time of crisis and/or celebration.
There are no hard and fast rules when it comes to grief and expressing loss, but being honest with children is essential in order to avoid them becoming confused by half-truths and fears.
Children in different age groups grieve in different ways so the help given may need to change to suit the age and personality of the child. This information aims to provide guidelines for parents or caregivers to help them meet the needs of grieving children.
Tell it how it is
If a parent or loved relative is dying of cancer then the children will usually be aware of the illness for some time. In most cases there will be time to talk to the children about illness and death.
Don't try to protect them by discouraging visiting or being present when the parent is dying. Children are often more accepting and down to earth than adults about death. If they are not there when the parent dies, tell them of the death as soon as possible, preferably quietly at home. Ideally, the surviving parent should tell the children so they can start the grieving process together. Letting them see the body may help establish the reality that a parent will not return.
Listen carefully to what the children say about things. Sometimes their grief is not obvious. If the children are very young you may not realize that they, too, are suffering badly, but in a different way, from the loss. Try to encourage children to express their grief. It may be by drawing pictures of the dead parent; it may be by talking about death. Make sure children understand that all sickness does not end in death. Fears and fantasies should be dealt with.
Tell them how sad you feel and that you understand how they feel, too. But, don't expect children to bear your burden or become a substitute for the partner you have lost. Children will ask some basic questions - like:
Did Mum/Dad die because of something I did? Will I die like she/he did? Who will look after me now? Will Dad/Mum die too? A guide to answering these sort of questions is included in this information. Remember that age groups don't end abruptly and problems can span across the ages given here.
It is good for children of any age to be included in the funeral service unless they say they don't want to attend. Children as young as two and a half understand the idea of saying goodbye.
You can explain even to small children something about the service and what it means. They may be concerned about the casket, or the burial, or the cremation. These may need to be explained up to the level of the child's understanding.
Some families find it helpful to have the casket and body at home before the service. You can ask the children if they would like to say goodbye in a very special way by placing a momento in the casket - a drawing, a letter or a flower.
It may also be helpful if a trusted adult cares for young children during the service. After the funeral, children may, in play, reenact the funeral and/or pretend to be sick or dying. This playing out...