Healing interaction includes spending time with a primary caregiver who supports the child’s self-esteem. Caregivers can clear up errors the children might make in their thinking processes that may lead them to feel guilty or blame themselves for the parent’s death. They need warm empathy for their disappointments and sadness, and respect for their happiness in remembering the dead parent.
Children Ages 9 to 11
These children seem to be so overwhelmed by their grief that they can’t tolerate their feelings. They don’t like talking about the dead parent. Instead, they compartmentalize their feelings by escaping into school and other activities. They refuse to express or experience their sadness and often resort to intellectualizing — seeking information about the parent’s disease and writing papers about it for school.
They experience anticipatory mourning during the parent’s illness and worry about the surviving parent’s health. They say they feel the dead parent’s presence, that the parent is watching them and that the parent is pleased when they succeed in sports, school or other activities. They have the image of the parent as the conveyor of knowledge and skills, and they mourn the parent as coach, advocate, cheerleader, friend and buddy.
Healing interaction includes trying to provide detailed information to the child in a non-emotional way. It may include giving the child opportunities to help out by asking him or her to assist in reasonable and appropriate tasks. And it can include providing opportunities for remembering the parent by helping them express feelings they may find too frightening to talk about.
Children Ages 12 to 14
These kids get a double whammy — the emotional and behavioral upheaval associated with puberty and early adolescence combined with mourning for the parent. They compartmentalize and avoid their feelings and also avoid information about the parent’s illness. They worry about their surviving parent’s health and often escape into school or after-school activities. They grieve alone because they are preoccupied with controlling the powerful emotions that can overwhelm them in public.
Their sense of the dead parent’s presence is very powerful — although they never doubt the parent is dead. They grieve for the loss of the parent’s specific characteristics and special functions in the family — shopping with them, organizing the family, mediating conflicts, helping them cope with their emotions and setting limitations on their behavior — rather than the parent’s more general role as caregiver. They also mourn the loss of their gender model and role model.
Healing interactions include providing structure and setting limits, helping de-escalate conflict, finding substitute gender models and social models — such as a family member or friend — and understanding that they need to be with friends during this time. They also need to feel empathy from adults for the real conflict they’re feeling developmentally — the need to withdraw from parents but the need for emotional closeness because of the death. It’s also helpful to provide formal opportunities for remembering since expressing sad and lonely feelings may feel threatening to them.
Children Ages 15 to 17
Teen-agers experience grief most like adults — but for a shorter length of time. They have very focused and complex anticipatory grief because they usually receive more information in preparation of the death. Their mourning is intense and overwhelming, and they are unable to control it by immersing themselves in school or activities. They have feelings of sadness, longing, despair, helplessness and hopelessness that seriously, but temporarily, affect their ability to function in most areas.
They speak of the parent’s characteristics — such as sense of humor — and mourn the loss of their confidante and wise counselor, of the courageous fighter and of the parent who believed in their ability to succeed on their own. They worry about how the parent’s death will affect their own future and the family’s future. And they express the understanding that so much has changed and things will never be the same again.
Explaining the mourning process and providing them opportunities to express their experiences can help. They may need help in setting limits and conflict resolution. They may also need help dealing with their increased fears of independence, separation from family and their own possible vulnerability to illness.