By Alanna Kennedy
Losing a Parent
How do you prepare kids for a parent's death?
By Alanna Kennedy
A family with a terminally ill parent faces many challenging issues. Should you tell your children what is going on with daddy? How will they react if they see their mommy sick in the hospital? While there is no way to make the loss of a parent pain-free, according to a study published last summer in CA: A Cancer Journal for Clinicians
, there are ways in which you can prepare a child and ease the impact of such a tragedy.
The most important step a parent can take is to be open about the situation, says Paula K. Rauch, a child psychiatrist and co-author of the book Raising an Emotionally Healthy Child When a Parent is Sick
. “If a child is kept in the dark about the severity of a parent’s illness, they can feel like they were betrayed or lied to and may even feel unloved,” she says. “That can leave them with problems trusting the surviving parent or the other adults in their lives.”
While it is important to be open with children, they benefit from information delivered in small doses rather than all at once, says Grace Christ, a social worker at Columbia University and an author of the recent study. But figuring out how to talk to your children will depend on their ages and developmental levels, she adds.
The study followed 87 children from three different developmental groupings during the parent’s illness until after the parent’s death. Children between the ages of 3 and 5 cannot grasp the permanence of death, the researchers concluded. After a parent’s death, these children often ask many questions, according to Christ. “It is their only way of mastering their experience,” she says, so it’s how they cope.
Children between 6 and 8 can understand that death is permanent and that it’s something that happens to everyone, says Christ. However, children in this group are often highly emotional and do not have the ability to restrain their emotions. They may mix fantasy with reality, and they often feel guilty. “They put together facts that don’t fit together and come up with wrong conclusions,” adds Christ. It is important to provide children at this age with constant clarification about the situation.
Christ’s study found that older school-age children, 9 to 11, tend to seek information. “They cope with their world by learning the facts of the situation,” she says. These children may hold back their emotions but can still have an occasional outburst.
There are many resources available that can help you ascertain the best way to talk to your child. According to Rauch, your hospital social worker can lend a hand to find help that’s available locally. There are also useful books, she adds, such as those listed in the family reading list on the website of Hurricane Voices, a breast cancer support and advocacy organization. Health care professionals such as nurses, your child’s pediatrician or even your oncologist can also help, says Christ. If a parent chooses to die at home with hospice care, Rauch suggests that you ask the hospice workers to share their experiences helping families and children deal with the death of a loved one.
While it is necessary to prepare your child for a parent’s death, it is important to focus on more than the disease, says Christ. During times when a parent’s illness is under control, families should try to do activities together and enjoy positive experiences, she says. “It is a struggle to go back and forth between the two [situations],” she says, but it can be beneficial for everyone.
“Children can cope, but not alone,” says Christ. “They need our help.”
Hurricane Voices family reading list: www.hurricanevoices.org/list/index.htm
Raising an Emotionally Healthy Child When a Parent is Sick, by Paula K. Rauch and Anna C. Muriel
When a Parent Has Cancer: A Guide to Caring for Your Children, by Wendy S. Harpham