Did your spouse or ex spouse recently die? Is your child having a difficult time coping with the loss? To help understand some of the thoughts and feelings your child could be experiencing after the loss of their parent and how you can help your child cope with the death, I have interviewed therapist Cindy Engelkes.
Tell me a little bit about yourself.
I have undergraduate degrees in elementary education and music education and have worked with children and families in churches and schools for the past 25 years. In the last five years, I have completed a master’s degree in Marriage and Family Therapy at Adler Graduate School. I am now a Licensed Associate Marriage and Family Therapist (LAMFT) working under supervision toward full licensure. I continue to work at a church where I develop and implement children’s educational programming, recruit and train volunteers, and teach parent education classes. I counsel children, youth, adults and families in the church and in private practice.
What are some thoughts and feelings a child may experience after losing a parent?
Children’s thoughts center on who will take care of them ‘” who will make breakfast or take them to baseball practice or come to their concert. Children may deny that this happened or believe they did something to cause the death of their parent. They may lose trust in other people and, if faith has been a part of their belief system, in God.
Until children are 8- or 9-years old, they don’t totally understand death and probably believe that death is not necessarily permanent. At this age, fears for the surviving parent, and maybe for themselves and others, may also increase. Older children may be able to imagine and fear changes that will come to the family. Teenagers may blame other family members or medical personnel.
Children of any age may experience many of the emotions we associate with circumstances when our needs are compromised or not met, e.g., anger, anxiety, fear, confusion, sadness, hopelessness, loneliness.
What type of impact can those thoughts and feelings have on a child’s overall life?
The emotions mentioned above can lead to aggression, regression, anxiety and/or depression if not expressed and released in more productive ways.
When left unresolved, loss of trust and fear of abandonment can impact relationships for a lifetime. One’s ability to be close to and trust and rely on the surviving parent, friends, or a future spouse can be affected.
What can the living parent do to help their child cope with the death?
Children will be most distressed by the changes that directly affect them. Strive to keep routines that involve basic needs, like meal times and bed times, as normal as possible. Allow children to make choices about attending school or other activities.
The following are important for parents to cultivate, hopefully before the death of a family member rocks their world. However, anytime is the right time to begin. These endeavors help families be close and responsive to each other’s needs and can provide strength in difficult times:
Teach children a feelings vocabulary and create an open environment where feelings can be expressed both verbally and nonverbally.
One way to foster verbal communication is to set aside ten minutes in the evening ‘” maybe at meal time or bed time ‘” for recounting each family member’s experiences of the day. Encourage each to share both a “thumbs up” and “thumbs down” experience so that children become comfortable sharing during times when they are embarrassed, afraid, angry, lonely or sad. Another good ingredient to include is the expression of things each family member is looking forward to ‘” this fosters hope and the anticipation of good things yet to come.
For nonverbal communication, provide calming music and a variety of art supplies and simple blank books to encourage expression through art projects and journaling.
Intentionally create family rituals. Rituals are the certain ways your family greets and sends each other ‘” the hellos, good-byes, good days and good nights ‘” and the way you celebrate birthdays and holidays. When a death occurs, adaptations or completely new rituals may be required. Some families set a place at the holiday table for the family member who has died; others choose to do something entirely new.
Identify and nurture your family’s support system: Who can you rely on if you would become overwhelmed? These are the people to call on to help you keep your children’s routines in place.
At the time of the death, here are four key things to keep in mind to help children cope with the loss:
Explain to your children in simple, direct, and age-appropriate language what will, is, or has happened. Use the word “died” instead of a euphemism. Provide details only when asked. If faith is a part of your belief system, call on clergy or church staff to be a part of these discussions. Be truthful regardless of the circumstances: There are appropriate ways to inform children of suicide or violent crime. Trust is broken when children find out at a later time that the circumstances were not as described.
Include children in the dying process if the death comes at the end of an illness. Include them in the memorial services as appropriate for their age. Prepare them for what they will see and what will take place. Give them choices about how they would like to participate. It is important to provide an opportunity and help children say good-bye to their loved one. This might include placing something special in the casket or pouring dirt or placing a flower at the gravesite.
Assure your children how they and you and other loved ones are safe, how they will be cared for, and that nothing they did caused the death.
Provide comfort by giving children something that belonged to the loved one, maybe an article of clothing or a pillow to sleep with. Provide a “treasure box” and help them collect pictures and items that remind them of the deceased parent.
What type of professional help is available for a child who is trying to cope with the death of a parent?
When families are close and responsive and are able to grieve and express and release feelings together, the living parent, other family members, teachers and clergy are often equipped to help children cope with the death. A book I use and recommend to help families work through this process is When Someone Very Special Dies by Marge Heegaard (© 1988, Woodland Press, Minneapolis). The Children’s Grief Education Association has many resources available on their website at http://childgrief.org/childgrief.htm as well as a link to locate local grief support groups for children. Sesame Workshop offers excellent, kid-friendly resources at http://www.sesameworkshop.org/grief.
When families are not equipped to help children grieve, something called “complicated” grief can ensue. Complicated grief is more likely to result if the death was sudden and traumatic or when abuse or neglect has been involved. This is the time to seek mental health professionals or grief counselors. As a family therapist, I recommend working with the living parent, each child, and the entire family unit, separately and together at various points. This process would include expressing and releasing feelings and helping the family form meaningful rituals to say good-bye and honor and retain the loved one’s place and influence in the family.
Thank you Cindy for doing the interview on how someone can help their child cope with the death of their parent. For more information on Cindy Engelkes or her work you can check out her website on http://www.franklinfamilyservices.org.
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