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Guide 2 Parenting   >   Death in the Family

Death in the Family

For young children, the loss of a parent is an overwhelming crisis, and impossible to understand. Children under five simply can not grasp the permanence of death. As a result, the first stage of grief is often a period of protest and hope that the lost parent will return. The child may try to use fantasy to make this happen, imagining their missing parent in familiar situations or places.

When the child starts to realize that the parent has truly gone forever, despair can sets in. Infants, who of course have very limited communication skills, may express their distress by crying, feeding poorly, and being difficult to console. Toddlers will cry, be easily excitable and uncooperative, and may perhaps regress to infantile behavior. Older children may become withdrawn - a preschooler might have a faraway look on his face, and be less creative and less enthusiastic about play. The child will pick up in the atmosphere in the home, the more anguished and emotionally distant the other members of the family are, the more intense a young child's despair is likely to be.

Eventually your child will emerge from this mood of despair, and begin to shift his love and trust to others. Of course this does not mean that he's forgotten the missing parent, or that the hurt has gone away. For the rest of his life, there will be times when he will experience conscious and unconscious feelings of loss, especially on birthdays, during Christmas and holidays, on special occasions such as a graduation, and when he's unwell. These are the times when the child is most likely to voice his sadness and ask questions about his missing parent.

Between the ages of four and seven, children are struggle with understanding their own gender identity. If the missing parent was the same sex as the child, this is the age when questions will come up most frequently. Ideally, these remembrances will be brief and positive and will not create serious distress. However, if they are prolonged, or if they disturb the child, it's a good idea to discuss them with your pediatrician.

In such a situation, it is very important to understand your child's feelings, and also help to reduce his fear of losing you too. Here are some things that you can do:-
  1. Allow your child to share his grief with you. Try not to get upset at your kid if he wants to ask why mommy or daddy isn't home anymore. Your kids are not callous to what has happened. They have feelings too.

  2. Take time to reassure children that they are not going to die. At some future time, the subject of death may come up again, but soon after a death in the family is not the right time for your kids to be considering that death as a reality for them.

  3. Do not tell your kids that mommy or daddy "has gone to sleep for a long time". This may cause them to terrified of going to bed at night, or make them worry that you might also "sleep for a long long time" when you go sleep.
Losing a sibling also is a devastating experience. Although it might not strike your child as deeply as the loss of a parent, it can be more complicated because many children, even if they are old enough to understand how their sibling died, may feel that they are in some way to blame. These feelings can be intensified if parents, deep in their own grief, become withdrawn or angry, and unwittingly shut themselves off from the child.

The surviving sibling must watch helplessly as his parents go through the agony of grief and despair. He will observe the shock and emotional numbness, then the denial, finally the anger that such a cruel thing should have happened. He is likely to hear guilt in his parents' words and voices, and may this guilt to mean that they were devoting time or attention to him that should have been given to his lost sibling.

As with the loss of a parent, the loss of a sibling also requires that you give attention, love and reassurance to your child.

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