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Featured this Month:

Father Loss: Girls and Grief
Wednesday, June 28, 2017 by Cynthia Waderlow MSE, LCSW
I’ve been reflecting on the collective body of children’s grief work from which I’ve been privileged to learn in our LOSS Program for Children and Youth. It has been over six years now. Young people stay to talk over varying lengths of time from weeks to months to years. There are so many intervening variables that affect the grief work of a young person, and also some tricky consequences of parental loss that I have become aware of as a result of watching the development of bereaved children and teens. Sometimes I like to share my impressions and questions. Girls seem to stay involved with expressive grief work longer than boys do. Maybe this is because I am a female therapist, or maybe it has something to do with the relational sensitivities that we associate more often with females even from a young age. Whatever the causal factors, today I am writing primarily about my experience with father bereaved girls, but it opens to broader questions about identity development for daughters who lose fathers and sons who lose mothers. Make no mistake, boys can be sensitive too, and certainly experience consequences of parental loss. I do see this, but it is fair to qualify that most of my impressions at this time stem from my counseling relationships with girls whose fathers have died from suicide. And father loss does stand out in the counseling program’s history because men die from suicide at a significantly greater rate than do women.

Following a parent’s suicide the surviving family’s system of operation, that is, the communication patterns, the particular family alliances, the routines, the rules that shaped the unique space your child used to develop her individuality and test out her skills and interests in a tough world… has changed. It may even feel stripped away. Traumatic loss triggers crisis of an existential nature where identity and relationships become vulnerable. The surviving parent and children are likely to experience confusion in their roles and relationships with each other for a while until adjustment takes place. Grief’s impact is deep and can feel debilitating, even when a young person appears to not be grieving. This is one of the first mysterious aspects of traumatic loss, particularly as it applies to children and adolescents. But consistently, the lens through which each person viewed the world as a predictable place no longer works, and children, too, are reforming their worlds and their places in it. I am struck by how complex and demanding developmental work among youth is. Because a young person’s individual identity is constructed over time partly in response to parent figures, both alive and deceased, parent loss becomes part of this powerful process.

Many, many bereaved young people crave the distractions of friends, school, sports and tech games. Or they will seek whatever supported their identity experiments before the loss. When they show grief, it is usually intermittent. This is normal, because children and adolescents develop rapidly and this compelling process is usually not fully impeded by grief unless serious depression has developed and is not treated.

When a surviving parent attends to children in a changed family landscape, we like to recommend parent consultation and counseling. We want you to know what is normal and what is not, what may not look necessary, but is, when to insist and when to be flexible. Loss periods can offer families opportunities for intimacy, understanding and growth, but because bereavement is so difficult, psychological defenses are sometimes off by degrees when a particular need cries out. The sudden death of a parent has profound impact, but with youth, grief responses are less visible on the surface. It is easy to be unaware when their coping is not the best, such as consistent withdrawal, acting out and avoidance. Rather, we hope to see the use of privacy and boundaries, expression of feelings and designated time for grief, such as counseling, journaling or family observances. Grief counseling for the needs of youth often includes attention to family adjustment. The process can help families practice healthy coping, better communication, problem solving and recognition of individual differences and needs as they not only accommodate to the loss, but to the emerging needs of the adolescent.

Older children and adolescents form independence by letting you know how they see things differently. The child of a deceased parent might explain the suicide to themselves with a story much different from yours. Because critiquing and evaluating is a huge part of becoming one’s own person, there is little question that they are looking at life and loss from a unique, private perspective that may push against your views. And suicide grief is relational for adults as well as youth. The grieving person will always review the loved one’s death in terms of the quality of their relationship.

In addition to pushing against parents, youth and adolescents also need parents to emulate, imitate and inspire. If a parent is deceased, he or she will still be a reference point for your child’s identity work. The teen strives to know the extent to which he or she can identify with each parent. Identifying with, and differentiating one’s self from each parent takes place over years, even into adulthood. This is a fine-tuned process of taking and rejecting parts of the parent, as he or she is known. When the parent is deceased, the child draws from memories, the needs and gaps created by the loss and the narrative he or she has formed that explains how and why suicide ended the parent’s life. During grief counseling balanced memories, sometimes poignant, sometimes critical or questioning, may be disclosed as a grieving teen integrates the loss into personal identity. You can imagine how bold this action can feel: “If I can both admire and criticize my deceased parent perhaps I can master my grief. Perhaps I can step over the chasm of my loss.”

Regarding girls who have lost fathers, even when the loss occurred before adolescence, I’ve sometimes noticed indications that the identity work within the grief process lacks balance. This is by no means consistent, but I’ve noticed an emerging pattern that might need more attention. I see more idealization of the deceased father, and more differentiation from the surviving mother. The child is absorbed by her father’s memory and wishes to accomplish meaningful works as a testimony to him. Often, her identity work is altruistic because she has become so attuned to loss and suffering. We may see her sensitivity lead toward selfless ideals or humanitarian commitments or a vegan diet, or mystical studies; perhaps she is more attracted to symbols and abstractions. Through her loss-informed identity work she may experience a temporary sense of euphoria and empowerment, and this brings relief from the deep pain of her grief. She may even see herself as stronger than her mother. Girls who have lost their fathers to suicide sometimes form highly sympathetic stories about the father’s emotional state prior to ending his life and may struggle with a sense of failure in preventing the death. The relational piece feels dominant and enduring, and excessive availability to others’ experiences of pain or injustice becomes a way of coping and compensating. We may see some girls who have lost their fathers to suicide acquire charisma, strong empathy, apparent wisdom and capabilities beyond their peers. And of course their commitments are admired and praised by adults. But the grandeur of a grieving daughter’s vision may contribute to an experience of isolation at some level with peers because of the depth and maturity that set her apart. It can be challenging to join in the frivolity of non-grieving peers who don’t know the reality of deepest loss.

When I have seen this set of grief responses in girls, I have not always identified risk. It is easy to misinterpret the meaning of such impressive behavior, and the girls see their expressions are meaningful. They are receiving affirmation from families and friends. They believe they are making it through their loss. But the psychology behind their emotional weight-lifting could lead to risk because they are still too young. Metaphorically speaking, it is almost as if the daughter became spell- bound by her love of her deceased father, and this led her away from her Self and the grounded, competitive activity that characterizes adolescence. She may have been working selflessly when the Self is not yet fully formed. Altruism, justice seeking and abstract ideas are great areas for teen development, but as with everything, balance is the key. Let’s monitor our grieving children for an ability to enjoy grounded, curious and self-focused activities and states of mind even as they develop after the loss of a beloved parent.

Every story of loss is unique, and this grief configuration for girls who have lost fathers to suicide is one way that grief may play out. We recommend that mothers notice if their daughters seem to be reshaping their values and lifestyles in response to the loss of their father. Be curious about a trend toward grand gestures, significant father idealization, symbolic thought, altruism, diet changes, new mother-daughter tensions and less of the worldly interests that once preoccupied your growing girl. The behaviors may look good, but are they, really? We always want to support and respect the unique personal grief responses of bereaved youth, but also pay close attention to how teens are incorporating their losses into their identity work. LOSS for Children and Youth is a resource to support all identity seeking teens and their families as they navigate a changed world.


Archives:

Father Loss: Girls and Grief
Wednesday, June 28, 2017 by Cynthia Waderlow MSE, LCSW
I’ve been reflecting on the collective body of children’s grief work from which I’ve been privileged to learn in our LOSS Program for Children and Youth. It has been over six years now. Young people stay to talk over varying lengths of time from weeks to months to years. There are so many intervening variables that affect the grief work of a young person, and also some tricky consequences of parental loss that I have become aware of as a result of watching the development of bereaved children and teens. Sometimes I like to share my impressions and questions. Girls seem to stay involved with expressive grief work longer than boys do. Maybe this is because I am a female therapist, or maybe it has something to do with the relational sensitivities that we associate more often with females even from a young age. Whatever the causal factors, today I am writing primarily about my experience with father bereaved girls, but it opens to broader questions about identity development for daughters who lose fathers and sons who lose mothers. Make no mistake, boys can be sensitive too, and certainly experience consequences of parental loss. I do see this, but it is fair to qualify that most of my impressions at this time stem from my counseling relationships with girls whose fathers have died from suicide. And father loss does stand out in the counseling program’s history because men die from suicide at a significantly greater rate than do women.

Following a parent’s suicide the surviving family’s system of operation, that is, the communication patterns, the particular family alliances, the routines, the rules that shaped the unique space your child used to develop her individuality and test out her skills and interests in a tough world… has changed. It may even feel stripped away. Traumatic loss triggers crisis of an existential nature where identity and relationships become vulnerable. The surviving parent and children are likely to experience confusion in their roles and relationships with each other for a while until adjustment takes place. Grief’s impact is deep and can feel debilitating, even when a young person appears to not be grieving. This is one of the first mysterious aspects of traumatic loss, particularly as it applies to children and adolescents. But consistently, the lens through which each person viewed the world as a predictable place no longer works, and children, too, are reforming their worlds and their places in it. I am struck by how complex and demanding developmental work among youth is. Because a young person’s individual identity is constructed over time partly in response to parent figures, both alive and deceased, parent loss becomes part of this powerful process.

Many, many bereaved young people crave the distractions of friends, school, sports and tech games. Or they will seek whatever supported their identity experiments before the loss. When they show grief, it is usually intermittent. This is normal, because children and adolescents develop rapidly and this compelling process is usually not fully impeded by grief unless serious depression has developed and is not treated.

When a surviving parent attends to children in a changed family landscape, we like to recommend parent consultation and counseling. We want you to know what is normal and what is not, what may not look necessary, but is, when to insist and when to be flexible. Loss periods can offer families opportunities for intimacy, understanding and growth, but because bereavement is so difficult, psychological defenses are sometimes off by degrees when a particular need cries out. The sudden death of a parent has profound impact, but with youth, grief responses are less visible on the surface. It is easy to be unaware when their coping is not the best, such as consistent withdrawal, acting out and avoidance. Rather, we hope to see the use of privacy and boundaries, expression of feelings and designated time for grief, such as counseling, journaling or family observances. Grief counseling for the needs of youth often includes attention to family adjustment. The process can help families practice healthy coping, better communication, problem solving and recognition of individual differences and needs as they not only accommodate to the loss, but to the emerging needs of the adolescent.

Older children and adolescents form independence by letting you know how they see things differently. The child of a deceased parent might explain the suicide to themselves with a story much different from yours. Because critiquing and evaluating is a huge part of becoming one’s own person, there is little question that they are looking at life and loss from a unique, private perspective that may push against your views. And suicide grief is relational for adults as well as youth. The grieving person will always review the loved one’s death in terms of the quality of their relationship.

In addition to pushing against parents, youth and adolescents also need parents to emulate, imitate and inspire. If a parent is deceased, he or she will still be a reference point for your child’s identity work. The teen strives to know the extent to which he or she can identify with each parent. Identifying with, and differentiating one’s self from each parent takes place over years, even into adulthood. This is a fine-tuned process of taking and rejecting parts of the parent, as he or she is known. When the parent is deceased, the child draws from memories, the needs and gaps created by the loss and the narrative he or she has formed that explains how and why suicide ended the parent’s life. During grief counseling balanced memories, sometimes poignant, sometimes critical or questioning, may be disclosed as a grieving teen integrates the loss into personal identity. You can imagine how bold this action can feel: “If I can both admire and criticize my deceased parent perhaps I can master my grief. Perhaps I can step over the chasm of my loss.”

Regarding girls who have lost fathers, even when the loss occurred before adolescence, I’ve sometimes noticed indications that the identity work within the grief process lacks balance. This is by no means consistent, but I’ve noticed an emerging pattern that might need more attention. I see more idealization of the deceased father, and more differentiation from the surviving mother. The child is absorbed by her father’s memory and wishes to accomplish meaningful works as a testimony to him. Often, her identity work is altruistic because she has become so attuned to loss and suffering. We may see her sensitivity lead toward selfless ideals or humanitarian commitments or a vegan diet, or mystical studies; perhaps she is more attracted to symbols and abstractions. Through her loss-informed identity work she may experience a temporary sense of euphoria and empowerment, and this brings relief from the deep pain of her grief. She may even see herself as stronger than her mother. Girls who have lost their fathers to suicide sometimes form highly sympathetic stories about the father’s emotional state prior to ending his life and may struggle with a sense of failure in preventing the death. The relational piece feels dominant and enduring, and excessive availability to others’ experiences of pain or injustice becomes a way of coping and compensating. We may see some girls who have lost their fathers to suicide acquire charisma, strong empathy, apparent wisdom and capabilities beyond their peers. And of course their commitments are admired and praised by adults. But the grandeur of a grieving daughter’s vision may contribute to an experience of isolation at some level with peers because of the depth and maturity that set her apart. It can be challenging to join in the frivolity of non-grieving peers who don’t know the reality of deepest loss.

When I have seen this set of grief responses in girls, I have not always identified risk. It is easy to misinterpret the meaning of such impressive behavior, and the girls see their expressions are meaningful. They are receiving affirmation from families and friends. They believe they are making it through their loss. But the psychology behind their emotional weight-lifting could lead to risk because they are still too young. Metaphorically speaking, it is almost as if the daughter became spell- bound by her love of her deceased father, and this led her away from her Self and the grounded, competitive activity that characterizes adolescence. She may have been working selflessly when the Self is not yet fully formed. Altruism, justice seeking and abstract ideas are great areas for teen development, but as with everything, balance is the key. Let’s monitor our grieving children for an ability to enjoy grounded, curious and self-focused activities and states of mind even as they develop after the loss of a beloved parent.

Every story of loss is unique, and this grief configuration for girls who have lost fathers to suicide is one way that grief may play out. We recommend that mothers notice if their daughters seem to be reshaping their values and lifestyles in response to the loss of their father. Be curious about a trend toward grand gestures, significant father idealization, symbolic thought, altruism, diet changes, new mother-daughter tensions and less of the worldly interests that once preoccupied your growing girl. The behaviors may look good, but are they, really? We always want to support and respect the unique personal grief responses of bereaved youth, but also pay close attention to how teens are incorporating their losses into their identity work. LOSS for Children and Youth is a resource to support all identity seeking teens and their families as they navigate a changed world.