What Happens When a Child Loses a Parent?

Updated

The death of a parent has heart-wrenching potential for anyone at any age. But it can be incredibly challenging when a child loses a parent. Depending on the age of the child, they may not yet understand what death means. For those who do, their reactions tether from agonizing despair to anger, to feelings of nothingness.

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All of these reactions are normal in having lost a parent as a child. Grief is unique to each individual and will affect everyone differently. A child’s age, maturity level, and understanding of death will all affect how they react to the death of a parent. 

How Do Kids Usually Deal With the Death of a Parent?

Talking to kids about death can seem like a daunting task for most adults to undertake. You may find that you’ll want to protect them from any further pain by not talking about it. Instinctually, you may find yourself skirting the issue, sugarcoating what’s happened, or avoiding having this conversation altogether.

Young children may be confused and not fully understand the concept of death. You may not know what to say to a child when their parent dies, but it is essential to come up with the right words that not only make sense to them in a way that doesn’t give them false hope.

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Does Losing a Parent in Childhood Have Long-Term Effects?

Almost always, the death of a parent when in childhood will have lasting effects. Unfortunately, a child who has lost a parent will face some difficulties as they get older.

Some of the things that they may struggle with are the following:

  • Identity issues
  • Survivor’s guilt
  • Loss of companionship
  • Loss of love and support
  • Missing out on special days and events

How Can You Help a Child With the Grief and Loss of a Parent?

Helping a child who’s grieving the loss of a parent requires giving them extra time, love, and support. Children are all unique and how one child grieves will be completely different from the next. 

Some considerations when helping a child cope with the death of a parent can include the age of the child, their maturity level, and their mental and emotional stability.

The following tips may be able to help when dealing with a child who’s suffering the death of a parent.

1. Have open communication

Having an open and ongoing dialogue about the death of their parent is vital in the first few days and weeks following the death of a child’s parent. A child may not understand what’s happened and the full significance of what it means to die.

Try not to confuse a child by using terms or expressions that gloss over the death of their parent. Using flowery language or euphemisms may cause the child to think that their parent might be coming back. In certain instances, a child might develop phobias or specific fears.

For example:

  • Telling a child that their parent has gone to sleep or is resting in peace may create an internal dialogue in their mind that one day their parent will wake up, and everything will be back to normal. In other extreme situations, a child may develop the fear of falling asleep and insomnia.
  • A child who hears that God or the Angels took their parent may confuse and turn them away from their religious or spiritual upbringing.
  • Telling a child that their mommy or daddy had to go away on a trip instead of telling them that their parent died will create hope for their return and they will expect to see their parent come home one day. Trying to protect a child from the truth of death will create confusion, anger, and resentment. When they get older and find out what happened to their parent, they may resent you for years to come.

2. Get them counseling

Children as young as school age can benefit from online counseling or therapy. Counseling can help them understand their loss and the grief that they may be experiencing. The counselor or therapist can help find age-appropriate counseling or therapies so the child can deal with their pain and sorrow. Some older children may be reluctant to get this type of help. Adolescents sometimes fear what their peers may think if they’re seeing a therapist. 

One way to help a teenager decide if counseling is right for them is by making literature available such as books on grief for them to read whenever they’re ready.

Another way to open the conversation is by inviting a friend or religious community member who knows a child that has gone through the same type of loss. By having them speak with your child, the conversations regarding death, loss, and mourning may fare better when it’s peer-to-peer. 

3. Keep up routines

Daily routines and schedules are essential in the lives of most children, as they tend to feel secure in what is most familiar to them. After such a significant loss, a child may feel numb to their loss in the first few days and weeks following their parent’s death.

After this initial period of shock and disbelief wears off, the child will likely fall into deep despair. Ongoing routines will help them move forward from one day to the next. Even when doing things on autopilot, you must maintain that structure for them.

Let the child’s actions and emotions dictate when you should deviate from those routines. You may need to take a time out from the usual daily activities to allow time for grieving. 

4. Give space to grieve

A child who’s lost a parent will go through emotional ups and downs in the weeks and months following their parent’s death. They may be dealing with feelings of guilt and hopelessness. Just like anyone else, it is essential to give a child space to process their grief and release these emotions associated with their loss. 

Some children who have lost a parent may feel that they’re to blame for their death. Children may go through phases of magical thinking where they start believing that they could’ve prevented their parent’s death, or that somehow they’re responsible for it. 

Having these thoughts is not uncommon. However, it’s important to point it out to them when they are having these types of fantasies.

You can begin by explaining some or all of the following:

  • Death is permanent.
  • You can’t wish for someone to come back alive no matter how much you will it.
  • Their death is not your fault.

5. Educate them

You can teach children about death by having open and honest discussions about why people die, what it means to die, and what happens after someone dies. There are children’s books about death and grief so they can learn from others what they can expect now that their parent has passed.

If the child is too young to read, consider setting some time aside to read to them or let them listen to audiobooks online. Your local public library should have access to these types of books or audio files. 

6. Tell them stories

A beautiful way to keep memories of their parent alive is by sharing stories of when their parent was younger. Most children will appreciate you giving them all the details that you can remember about what their parent was like when they were a child just like them. 

You can also tell them stories about how their parents met and the memories surrounding their birth. Remind them of how much their parent loved them and how they can keep them close to their heart by talking to them whenever they feel the need.

Encourage the child to tell stories of their own, paint pictures, or keep a journal of what they remember about their parent. 

7. Honor their parent

Consider setting up a memorial lunch or dinner in honor of the child’s parent who has died. Allow the child to aid in planning the memorial. If the child is too young to engage in the planning and details, keep the child involved by having them help wherever they can. 

A child as young as two can help with the prep work involved, such as making the invitations, picking out themes, and colors. Older children can get more involved so that they feel as if they’re part of the event planning in honor of their parent.

If the child doesn’t want to participate, that’s okay too. Ask them to pitch in whenever they feel like it, or just do their part by showing up on the date of the event. 

8. Give hope and encouragement

A child that is grieving will need constant reassurance that things will be okay. Children feel comforted when they know that there will always be someone to protect and take care of them. Give them that feeling of security by explaining to them what will happen next, who will be taking care of them, and where they’ll live.

Depending on the age of the child, you may want to explain what happens in step-parent households. If the child has been orphaned, give them hope that someone will always be there to love them, and take care of them regardless of the circumstances. 

A Child Whose Parent Has Died 

When a child’s parent has died, it tends to change that child’s life forever. All of the hopes and dreams a child had of having their parent’s love and support vanish in an instant, leaving the child feeling sad, lonely, and confused.

Years may go by with the child still mourning their parent’s death. Prepare to give them endless love and support through the years as they transition into adulthood.

If you're looking for more ways to support a child, read our guides on Children's Grief Awareness Day, gifts for children who lost a parent, and what to say to a child when their parent dies.

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