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Featured this Month:

Younger Children and Parental Loss
Friday, November 01, 2013 by Cynthia Waderlow, MSE, LCSW
Younger children are mysterious in that they can be amazingly honest and straightforward and equally abstract.  Children as young as age two and three can already mask feelings and defend against the reality of a loss.  We see a range of grief responses and adaptation to death, just as we do in adults, and similar to adults, a stable home base plays a role in the adjustment process.  

Younger children will try to formulate thoughts and questions to address the sudden absence of a deceased loved one.  Imagine trying to do this without the capacity to understand death’s permanence, the concept of forever.  Even with a developed intellectual understanding of death, adults have difficulty coming to terms with not seeing their loved one again.  We explain to young children that the body of the person they lost no longer works: “They cannot think or feel.  They no longer open their eyes, or walk or talk or eat food.  The person has died and cannot come home.”  Young children will repeat their questions about the person coming back.  One child insists that she can open her father’s eyes.  Another child is focused on why daddy can’t eat food anymore.  A five year old wants to call the police. Young children acclimate early on the availability of solutions that seem possible to them.  Because they have watched adults fixing situations in the past bereaved younger children hold fantasies about their own power to reverse the loss.  In the initial phase of the loss, children continue to include the deceased person in their drawings of family.  They may include the deceased in a removed position, sometimes up in the sky.  Much later, their drawings reflect the world they have come to know as they gradually in the permanent absence of their loved one.  

It appears common that younger bereaved children will want to sleep with the surviving parent for a while after the death.  Loss can trigger anxiety in every person with attachment needs.  Each bereaved parent will face a personal decision on this matter.  We do recommend flexibility during the first weeks when the parent and child are experiencing the shock of the loss.  Each night can include the message, “We are very upset that Daddy has died and he can’t come back. Our lives are very different now, but we will get through this together.   So you can sleep with me tonight, but soon you will go back to your own bed. “Younger children understand the significance of something that is so different and important. It is validating to hear that this fear or anxiety is caused by a loss that the parent recognizes as life-changing. If the surviving parent can tolerate this regression from the normal sleeping patterns, we see healing and nurturance available to the child with this arrangement.

Younger bereaved children are likely to ask the surviving parent if she will die too.  This question is difficult for the child and the parent, but a level answer in reassuring tones is the best response: “Nobody knows for sure when they will die.  But I plan to live a long time and take care of you.” Younger children don’t usually generalize others’ deaths with the possibility of their own death, though we do see this in teens.  When young children do ask about their own mortality, we can offer that most children do not die unless they become very, very sick and the doctor cannot fix them, or they have a very, very serious accident.  When young children are very troubled with persistent existential questions, connecting with a child therapist is recommended.
What about tantrums?  We often see an increase in tantrums in parentally bereaved children under age five.  Surviving parents have asked whether the child is manipulating when a tantrum breaks out after the TV has been turned off, or actually screaming against the loss of the deceased parent.

What is the tantrum really about?  The fits do seem to be about loss.  Initially the child resists the unwanted transition away from the television and the loss of control.  Just under the surface is the profound loss of the parent or loved one, and it is triggered by the surface loss.  During quieting, the surviving parent can be present to the child’s deeper disturbance:  “When you were angry about turning off the TV  it  seemed to me that you were really missing Daddy, and this made you even more mad.  I understand how very hard this is for you.”  It can be comforting to include a little story about how you felt grief triggered by a seemingly unrelated frustration.  Bereavement is a whole body-mind experience and grief is taxing work.  Transitions and frustrations will require more focused attention and comforting respite from the parent in order for the child to develop better coping with the painful reality.  

The stable home base needed by every deeply bereaved individual is the safety net for grief.  Stability will include nurturance, behavior limits, structure and routine, and the parent’s thoughtful insight into the child’s experience of the loss.  Proper rest, nutrition, self-esteem support, affection and help with emotional regulation will fall under these categories.  Usually, to the extent that the surviving parent can create or maintain the stable base, both the child and parent will do better, and it is the primary item addressed in the needs of a grieving child.  The stable base is the container for the grief experienced by the child and parent.  It is created by the parent’s resources, awareness and boundaries, and expressed through “presence” to the true nature of your grieving younger child.  Each surviving parent of a younger child will hold this role.

The LOSS Program for Children and Youth invites bereaved parents of younger children to use the parent consultation, individual and family sessions as support when families struggle to regain a sense of normalcy following profound loss.  Grief is about love, expression and adaptation.  We encourage parents’ efforts to read and consult about the extraordinary circumstances created by parental bereavement in children, and the most effective ways to help young ones through grief to adaptive coping.         


Archives:

Younger Children and Parental Loss
Friday, November 01, 2013 by Cynthia Waderlow, MSE, LCSW
Younger children are mysterious in that they can be amazingly honest and straightforward and equally abstract.  Children as young as age two and three can already mask feelings and defend against the reality of a loss.  We see a range of grief responses and adaptation to death, just as we do in adults, and similar to adults, a stable home base plays a role in the adjustment process.  

Younger children will try to formulate thoughts and questions to address the sudden absence of a deceased loved one.  Imagine trying to do this without the capacity to understand death’s permanence, the concept of forever.  Even with a developed intellectual understanding of death, adults have difficulty coming to terms with not seeing their loved one again.  We explain to young children that the body of the person they lost no longer works: “They cannot think or feel.  They no longer open their eyes, or walk or talk or eat food.  The person has died and cannot come home.”  Young children will repeat their questions about the person coming back.  One child insists that she can open her father’s eyes.  Another child is focused on why daddy can’t eat food anymore.  A five year old wants to call the police. Young children acclimate early on the availability of solutions that seem possible to them.  Because they have watched adults fixing situations in the past bereaved younger children hold fantasies about their own power to reverse the loss.  In the initial phase of the loss, children continue to include the deceased person in their drawings of family.  They may include the deceased in a removed position, sometimes up in the sky.  Much later, their drawings reflect the world they have come to know as they gradually in the permanent absence of their loved one.  

It appears common that younger bereaved children will want to sleep with the surviving parent for a while after the death.  Loss can trigger anxiety in every person with attachment needs.  Each bereaved parent will face a personal decision on this matter.  We do recommend flexibility during the first weeks when the parent and child are experiencing the shock of the loss.  Each night can include the message, “We are very upset that Daddy has died and he can’t come back. Our lives are very different now, but we will get through this together.   So you can sleep with me tonight, but soon you will go back to your own bed. “Younger children understand the significance of something that is so different and important. It is validating to hear that this fear or anxiety is caused by a loss that the parent recognizes as life-changing. If the surviving parent can tolerate this regression from the normal sleeping patterns, we see healing and nurturance available to the child with this arrangement.

Younger bereaved children are likely to ask the surviving parent if she will die too.  This question is difficult for the child and the parent, but a level answer in reassuring tones is the best response: “Nobody knows for sure when they will die.  But I plan to live a long time and take care of you.” Younger children don’t usually generalize others’ deaths with the possibility of their own death, though we do see this in teens.  When young children do ask about their own mortality, we can offer that most children do not die unless they become very, very sick and the doctor cannot fix them, or they have a very, very serious accident.  When young children are very troubled with persistent existential questions, connecting with a child therapist is recommended.
What about tantrums?  We often see an increase in tantrums in parentally bereaved children under age five.  Surviving parents have asked whether the child is manipulating when a tantrum breaks out after the TV has been turned off, or actually screaming against the loss of the deceased parent.

What is the tantrum really about?  The fits do seem to be about loss.  Initially the child resists the unwanted transition away from the television and the loss of control.  Just under the surface is the profound loss of the parent or loved one, and it is triggered by the surface loss.  During quieting, the surviving parent can be present to the child’s deeper disturbance:  “When you were angry about turning off the TV  it  seemed to me that you were really missing Daddy, and this made you even more mad.  I understand how very hard this is for you.”  It can be comforting to include a little story about how you felt grief triggered by a seemingly unrelated frustration.  Bereavement is a whole body-mind experience and grief is taxing work.  Transitions and frustrations will require more focused attention and comforting respite from the parent in order for the child to develop better coping with the painful reality.  

The stable home base needed by every deeply bereaved individual is the safety net for grief.  Stability will include nurturance, behavior limits, structure and routine, and the parent’s thoughtful insight into the child’s experience of the loss.  Proper rest, nutrition, self-esteem support, affection and help with emotional regulation will fall under these categories.  Usually, to the extent that the surviving parent can create or maintain the stable base, both the child and parent will do better, and it is the primary item addressed in the needs of a grieving child.  The stable base is the container for the grief experienced by the child and parent.  It is created by the parent’s resources, awareness and boundaries, and expressed through “presence” to the true nature of your grieving younger child.  Each surviving parent of a younger child will hold this role.

The LOSS Program for Children and Youth invites bereaved parents of younger children to use the parent consultation, individual and family sessions as support when families struggle to regain a sense of normalcy following profound loss.  Grief is about love, expression and adaptation.  We encourage parents’ efforts to read and consult about the extraordinary circumstances created by parental bereavement in children, and the most effective ways to help young ones through grief to adaptive coping.