Several weeks after her father died, one 3-year-old began asking her mom to get her a new daddy. Unhappy that the other children in her preschool had fathers, she was anxious to get a family together — and the sooner the better.
A 5-year-old suggested her widowed mother remarry two men — that way if one died, they would still have the other one.
Is it odd that these very young children dwell so intently on the idea of putting the family pieces back together again, Humpty Dumpty-style, after a parent dies?
Not at all, says Grace Hyslop Christ. In fact, it’s a very real part of a young child’s grieving process. Children in this particular developmental group (ages 3 to 5) may be intensely upset about the loss of the “whole family” they had believed would always be theirs — the family that gave them a sense of security and well being, Christ says. They may also be upset about being different from the other children and may greatly miss the family climate that existed before the parent’s illness.
Christ is an associate professor in the School of Social Work at Columbia University in New York City. In her book, “Healing Children’s Grief: Surviving a Parent’s Death From Cancer” (Oxford University Press, 2000, $24.95), she examines the hows and whys of children’s grief over the loss of a parent.
“I felt we needed to understand how children experienced the death of a parent in a much more systematic way to see if we could give better answers to what is typical and what is normative for children at different levels,” Christ said.
To accomplish this, Christ and her colleague Dr. Karolynn Siegel studied 157 children (ages 3 to 17) whose parents were patients at Memorial Sloan-Kettering Cancer Center in New York City. For six months before and 14 months after the parents’ deaths, these children (79 girls and 78 boys) and their families received counseling and therapy with social workers and other mental health professionals.
This study, which took place from 1988 to 1994, is the largest and most comprehensive study of childhood bereavement ever. Previous studies only focused on children after a parent’s death and none had encompassed that time of illness leading up to the death.
“First of all, children do grieve — contrary to what Sigmund Freud believed — but they grieve differently from adults,” Christ said. “And they can’t do it alone. Children need informed and supportive adults to help them. And children may have very different ways of expressing their grief.
“But what was most surprising,” she said, “were the distinct differences we found in terms of how children at different development levels felt, experienced and expressed their grief.”
The following are examples of the developmental differences in grieving and the healing interventions that helped each group deal effectively with the mourning process.
Children Ages 3 to 5
Three- to 5-year-olds don’t seem to mourn in anticipation of a parent’s death. After the death, they begin to show signs of grieving only when they fully realize their parent won’t ever come back, which sometimes takes several months.
Some want to speak of their dead parent — others don’t. Once they realize the parent is truly gone, signs of grieving may include wanting to sleep with the surviving parent, thumb sucking, bed wetting, clinging, night terrors, whining, stomach aches and other physical complaints, and worry about their own health. Children at this level may demand that the surviving parent get them a replacement parent.
Healing interaction includes finding ways to help them talk about the parent who died. It relieves anxiety and improves the ability to talk about the good things they remember.
Children Ages 6 to 8
Children in this age group experience anxiety over anticipating a parent’s death. They are afraid of this awesome life-changing event. As soon as they learn of the death, they fully realize that the parent is gone forever — although they may say the parent is in heaven watching over them or that they feel the parent’s presence and talk to him or her.
Although they experience moments of grief, anger and sadness, the greatest effect of their mourning is pleasure in telling and retelling stories about things they and the parent did together. Their image of the dead parent is usually as a loving caregiver, protector, provider of good things and a strong, much-admired hero or heroine.