1: The surviving parent – putting your oxygen mask on first
Research has shown that the death of a spouse is largely acknowledged as the most stressful of life events, closely followed by the death of a family member. The surviving parent may find it difficult to talk to their children about the death because they are in shock, even with an anticipated death. They may be suffering debilitating emotional pain or bewildered by such confusing emotions as guilt, anger, and fear. They may also worry that bringing up the subject might retraumatize their children.
If you are such a parent then it’s important to find support. If you feel you can’t talk openly to family and friends because you don’t want to burden them, then see if there are any self-help groups locally. Three organisations, specialising in child bereavement are: Grief Encounter, Winston’s Wish, and Child Bereavement UK.
In the UK some NHS trusts offer free online therapy or you can be referred for free counselling sessions through your GP. It’s important that you look after yourself – put on your oxygen mask first to better help your children.
2: The surviving children – acknowledging the elephant in the room
Children can often appear to be coping very well after losing a parent. In fact, most children are expected to go back to school and ‘get on with it.’ But as Shelley Gilbert, founder of Grief Encounter, who lost her mother at four and her father at nine, wrote: ‘not all pain is seen.’
The truth is that, when a parent dies, children’s lives are completely shattered. Their lives will be irrevocably changed forever. Like their surviving parent, they will be going through huge emotional upheaval, but have the added disadvantage that developmentally they have difficulties putting such distressing feelings into words. If there is a conspiracy of silence, the elephant in the room, then children are forced to keep feelings inside. This can lead to behavioural and mental health problems which may not become apparent until later on in life. What children need is to feel included, listened to, heard and supported by the adults they come into contact with.
For teenagers, friends become particularly important. Children need to know that it’s OK to express feelings of profound sadness, loss and other confusing emotions. Grieving is a healthy process and there is no right way of doing grief - it is a personal journey, different for everyone it touches.
3: The importance of facts and rituals – tackling the elephant in the room
It is so helpful for children if their questions surrounding the death of a parent are answered openly and honestly. More so if the death was unexpected, like a car crash, murder, manslaughter or suicide. If it is all swept under the carpet then children’s imaginations take over and can be more disturbing and frightening than the reality.
What children need are the facts, taking into consideration their age. If you’re not sure how to do this then Grief Encounter and Winston’s Wish not only have excellent websites and helplines, but also publish books to guide anyone who wants to help a bereaved child. In many faiths and cultures there will be some kind of funeral service, where children are included in rituals before, during and after the service. For those who have no particular faith, it’s important that children have a chance to say a special goodbye and are involved in the choices and decisions as to how they say goodbye.
Nina Ruff is a therapeutic counsellor with a private practice in London and volunteers at Grief Encounter and a junior school. She is a passionate freelance writer on mental health issues.