How To Help Your Child Build Resilience After The Death Of A Parent

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Perhaps, you saw last week, Prince Harry along with Prince William and his wife Catherine announced their support of mental health charities with the intent to “change the conversation of mental health.”

Prince Harry spoke in a podcast about how he coped with the untimely death of his mother, Princess Diana. Prince Harry was just twelve when his mother died. Bryony Gordon recorded the podcast at Kensington Palace with him. Prince Harry opens the conversation by saying, “I spent most of my life saying ‘I’m fine.’”

In the podcast, Prince Harry talks about losing his mum “in a public platform” and says he “buried his head in the sand” for many years. He adds that three years ago, his brother encouraged him to examine the grief at a deeper level. Prince Harry reveals, “I can safely say that losing my mum at the age of 12, and therefore shutting down all of my emotions for the last 20 years, has had a quite serious effect on not only my personal life but my work as well.”

Losing a parent when you are a child does impact your adult life. While I’ve written this book about healing as a widow (In 2007, I was widowed), I seldom write about losing my father as a young child.

In 1979, my father died after a long and devastating battle with cancer. I was two weeks shy of turning five. The night he died, I left the hospital with my paternal grandparents and my mother not knowing that the entire trajectory of my life changed. Fortunately, until that moment, I had no experience with death as both sets of my grandparents were alive.

As a child you outgrow many things. You outgrow many fears—the fear of darkness or jumping off a diving board or entering a new classroom, but you don’t outgrow the death of your parent. It is something that remains with you. This doesn’t mean you can’t live a healthy life and achieve great things, but it is a different path. As an only child, I didn’t have a sibling to share my grief with so it was a very isolating experience and school was no exception. The class sessions where an activity integrated a father, my stomach coiled in a knot. In kindergarten, when my teacher said we needed to draw a picture of our father for an early Father’s Day present, I just froze. Bewilderment. I couldn’t remember exactly what my father looked like, and I also knew I had no one to give the drawing to.

I’ve lived more decades of my life without my father than I did with him. I know I think about some things differently than most of my peers. When I turned 31, I remember thinking, “I’ve outlived my father” ― meaning my father never celebrated his thirty-first birthday. To some this may sound like an obscure affliction. However, I know that other adults who lost their parents early on can relate to this and other similar sentiments. Two evenings ago, a woman was sharing plans for her father’s seventy-fifth birthday party. Before I could comment there was a lump in my throat. It occurred to me that I wouldn’t be able to do this for my father. And so moments like these still catch me off guard and give me pause.

And if you are reading this piece because you are a parent or work with children who have lost a parent and are wondering how can you relate to your child and want to teach your child to become resilient, I have a few suggestions for you. These suggestions are in particular order of importance.

Try as best you can to frame the loss in a respectable, age-appropriate and honest manner. Telling a child they will “overcome” this tragedy may not the best way to approach this death. Losing a parent is tragic. If you present the loss as something that needs to be “overcome” like a sports injury, it can set them up thinking grief is a task they can check off once completed. And when the emotional pain remains, the child may feel they’ve failed or are not doing something correct because they can’t succeed in completing the work of grief. Learning to live with the grief is teaching the child that the loss will remain with them, but it can also be handled.

This leads to the next point: Death is very painful. However, resilient people aren’t pain-free, but they know how to handle it. You can expect there will be painful moments, such as holidays, the deceased parent’s birthday, a school graduation. And pretending that pain will not exist during these or other occasions isn’t realistic. What you don’t want is for the child to think that after a funeral or a certain milestone birthday, they will be pain-free. By being open and forthright that pain can intensify during certain times, you can develop a plan to handle these situations. Don’t be afraid to use a pain scale much like the one you encounter in your primary care doctor’s office. Explain that a “1” is the worst pain (perhaps when their parent just died) and “10” is feeling little to no pain. This helps your child gauge their pain and you can gain insight into it as well. Sometimes it is easier for children to give emotional pain a number then provide a narrative and dissect it.

And there are things a parent or primary caregiver can do in an attempt to minimize the pain. For example, if you are approaching Mother’s Day, and you know your child will most likely be asked to draw a card for their mother during art class, you can speak with the teacher ahead of time about either having your child opt out of this or creating a card for another special family member. When the time comes, your child is prepared and so is the teacher. This doesn’t mean this will be a tear-free moment, but helping your child ahead of time can decrease the intensity of the pain.

For children, the pain can come in a physical form, like a stomach ache or headache. Helping children to connect how their emotions link to their physical discomfort is important. They may be tongue-tied because the unspeakable happened. Acting out is not uncommon. Teaching children to give themselves a timeout is empowering as well. You are bearing witness to both their sorrow and pain, and showing them how to manage both is important.

Another part of resiliency is being able to create new healthy options. As a parent, you want to circumvent any undue stress your child will encounter, but helping them look at creative problem solving, especially after loss builds resilience.

Teaching children to live life on life’s terms builds resilience. This needs to be done in an age-appropriate manner, so this doesn’t mean that you scare your child with your unsettling financial distress because you’re trying to build strength. However, you can still acknowledge there is a void created by their parent’s death, instead of trying to pretend the loss doesn’t exist. You are honest in explaining no one can take the place of their parent, so they don’t think the loss can be replaced with a person or thing. You can introduce healthy people into their life, so they have other adults to lean into for comfort.

Teaching children to reach out for help builds resilience. As a single parent, you can’t be everything to your child. And some issues do require professional help such as counseling and/or a support group. There will be things you may need to do that you are uncomfortable with, but you go ahead because you know your child will benefit. When I was a young child, I didn’t want to tell my family how much I missed my father because I was fearful they would be upset. Children can sense what your weak spots are and nothing makes you more vulnerable than grief. When we get stuck as adults, it is okay to seek assistance, just as it is for a child to ask for help. Seeking help is often the smart thing to do.

Teaching children that there’s no perfect way to grieve invites resilience. In our quest for perfection, we often want to get everything right. Yet, perfection doesn’t take into account loss, horror, guilt, trauma. Bereavement is messy; it isn’t packaged for Instagram, so trying to manage your misfortune by minding your image probably won’t work. Instead, put your efforts and energy into recovery, homemade memories, and compassion both for yourself and your children.

Teaching children to find their own meaning in loss builds resilience. You may want to assign a particular meaning to the death and give this to your child. For example, if a parent smoked and this contributed to the death, you may be quick to say, “See, the lesson here is to take care of your health.” While this statement may be full of truth, it is important to give your child space to come up with their own conclusion. The lessons they learn from a parent’s death are far-reaching, and giving them space to transform the loss is critical. This may take years depending on your child’s age and cause of the parent’s death. Do not rush this process. Wait. And wait more. Practice patience. The pieces are all there, so let the child decide what they will invent with them.

And keep in mind that just because a child doesn’t mention their parent doesn’t mean they do not think about them. They too wish there was a “reset” button and things could go back to life before death. Teaching children that grief evolves and takes a different shape as they age helps them understand grief as a process and not a simple task.

And finally, listen. Listen to all that you child says in their words, letters, steps, drawings, and songs. And then listen to what isn’t being said therein lies the hope.

Kristin Meekhof is a licensed master’s level social worker, speaker, and author of A Widow’s Guide to Healing with cover blurbs from Maria Shriver and Deepak Chopra, M.D. Kristin was a recent panelist at the 2017 Harvard Medical School’s writing conference. She recently attended the UN Women’s conference, and can be reached via her website. She speaks about resiliency, writing, grief, and wellness.