The ultimate loss for a child is the loss of a parent. Thousands of children lose their parents and are in dire need of care and counseling. Some children lose one parent, while others lose both and face even greater alterations in their life. Hence in addition to the initial tragic loss and shock, there are waves of other secondary losses that affect the child. They continue to burn into the heart of the child and without care, can become emotional scars that never heal.
One must look at this type of loss from numerous angles. While the loss itself is terrible, there are numerous subjective elements to consider. Age is one of these things. The age of the child and the child’s comprehension of the loss play a key role. The younger the child is, the least traumatic the loss will be, while the older the child, the more the loss will affect them. Memories will be more numerous and the sting of the loss will take my adjustment. Depending on the child’s reasoning capabilities, some younger children with memories may even blame themselves with imaginary thinking that they may have caused their parent or parents’ death. This is why it is so key to discuss the loss in relation to the child’s age and their mental capability.
In this particular case, we will imagine a little girl, named Kelly, who lost her mother at age 9. This will allow us to focus more on a case study and what to expect. At the age of 9, Kelly will have definitive memories and also a traumatic break from her mother. It is important to allow her to grieve this initial loss. It is very important to understand her thinking regarding the loss. At age 9, she understands the finality of death. One does not need to speak in analogy, but it is important to be very cautious in explaining the spirituality of death. Some children will not understand why God or heaven took their mother. Hence, it is very important to use very concrete language that explains the loss. One can illustrate that mother is in heaven, but to articulate that God wanted mommy in heaven, or other such language should be avoided.
It is also important to illustrate to Kelly that the loss of her mother is not her fault. Some children will associate wishful or imaginary thinking as having true power. For instance, if a child was angry at a parent and exclaimed or thought something horrible happening to a parent, they will then associate their thought with the actual event even though they do not tie together. It is important to dispel such imaginary thinking to avoid future guilt complexes in the child.
In regards to Kelly, it is also crucial to ensure her wishes to participate in funeral rites are respected. Many individuals look to shield a child from the loss of a parent. They prevent the child from attending the funeral. It is crucial for the child to participate to her comfort level in the funeral rites. The finality is critical and the support received is equally critical. Kelly will need to be able to say goodbye to her mother and also share in the social grief with family. She needs to see that tears are important and that grieving is important.
Following this initial loss, she will grieve. She will continue to grieve. She will need her father and family to comfort her. There will be things no-one can ever replace that mommy did. As time proceeds, she should be encouraged to remember her mother and remember her life. She can frame special pictures or create small shrines to her mother. These are all important steps in adjusting to the loss over time. These steps do not come quick though and require time.
The loss will never truly ever leave. There will be reactions of anger and frustration towards others. There will be days worst than others. Birthdays and holidays will sting. Life events will always haunt her as other girls have their mother for prom, wedding day or the birth of a child. The loss can be reborn in small but yet still painful ways via events.
Ultimately, the loss will always be tragic but the key is to help Kelly adjust to the loss in a healthy way and continue her life and share the love of her mother with others through memories and stories.
The same holds true for an older child. A teenage girl can suffer as well. The memories are stronger and more numerous as the child ages. There is more than just a faint memory of not having a “mother” at a life event, but the one visually sees their mother herself. The sting will be more current because the person is older. As a teenager, the loss of a parent can trigger also other multiple issues with drinking and other bad behaviors. Teens have a difficult time due to the many changes already occuring in their lives. The transition can be very difficult and a loss can totally send a life into a tail spin.
Take for instance Judy, who lost her mother at age 15. With high school, becoming a woman, and dating boys, the need of a mother figure and losing her can be devastating for Judy. Judy could possibly go into a deep depression if her emotional needs are not met. In addition, she may exhibit a different type of guilt. She may have fought with her mother or at times not appreciated all her mother did for her. This can create a stinging type of guilt in her soul.
In addition, she may become resentful to her mother for leaving her, or resentful to her father, especially if a few years later he dates. She could become very angry towards any attempts to have her mother replaced. Furthermore as she experiences more life events, the fresh face of her mother will haunt her more than Kelly, who at age ten may have only distant vague memories.
So we have a multitude of scenarios. We can experience the loss from the eyes of a 9 year old in Kelly, or even through the eyes of Judy a 15 yr old teen. Then others may never know their parents. Their mother or father may pass while they are babies and never have the experience to know their parents. The loss of never knowing or meeting their parent may exhibit a type of grief of never having or possessing them in their lives.
So while numerous scenarios can exist in the loss of a parent, there remains one universal loss. The loss of a parent is pivotal to the very existence of any child at any age. In some way, the loss of a parent takes away a fundamental element of growing up and becoming an adult. Even as an adult, the loss can still sting as adults mourn the lack of their parents in their own children’s lives.
While children and adult children will eventually adapt to life without their parent or parents, the loss still always haunts. It will never be the same but the love can still be remembered. Through memories, story telling and sharing, the life of a parent can still shine for others. Legacies can be pushed forward and shared. Values or ideals can be instilled in others. While the loss is forever, the bond and love between parent and child is forever–and that can never die.
Please also review our Child and Adolescent Grief Counseling Program and see if it matches your academic and professional goals.