When a young parent dies
Psychologists give advice on helping children following the death of a parent
The thought that your graying mom or dad might no longer be with you someday is unbearable for most adults.
But recently, a mom wrote in for help, looking for advice to help her with a heartbreaking problem. Her husband is dying and she wanted to know how to talk to her young children about what her family would be going through in the very near future. For the answers, we went to our experts.
“It’s important to explain to children that a parent is sick, and it’s a type of sickness in which he or she will get sicker, not better,” Joy Crabtree, Psy.D., a licensed psychologist at Cook Children’s Urgent Care and Specialties in Southlake, Texas. “The dying parent should be involved as much as that person is able in terms of planning and engaging in special activities with the kids (together and separately) during periods that he or she is well enough to do so.”
Crabtree suggests lots of pictures be taken and the parent write special letters to each child to be opened later at specific ages or milestones. In the future, after the parent passes, there will be periods of grief that pop up and perhaps a sense of sadness or a feeling from the kids that they were robbed the opportunity to share proud moments or special occasions with both mom and dad.
“If that comes up, the kids can be encouraged to write those thoughts down, either randomly or in letter format,” Crabtree said. “They can simply keep an ongoing journal of what they wish they could tell the parent who died or even write it on a note and tie it to a balloon and set it free. They might keep a box of drawings or notes that they make for mom or dad.”
Crabtree suggest the children go into therapy and the dying parent join as well if possible to address and get support/guidance for questions/behaviors that are coming up for the kids. “There is certainly no guidebook or specific right or wrong way to handle the process,” Crabtree said. “It will be tough no matter what, but with open communication, sharing memories, and the understanding that all questions and thoughts are welcome, they can work through it together.”
Lisa Elliott, Ph.D., a licensed psychologist and clinic manager of Behavioral Health for Cook Children’s in Denton, said she has seen a family go through this first-hand. She said the young father did an “incredible job of leaving a legacy” for his 2 year old by writing a book for her and lots of letters for her at critical points in her life, such as starting kindergarten, middle school, high school, graduation, turning 13 and 16, getting married and becoming a mom. The parents also bought charms for their daughter to be given to her on those critical dates.
Lena Zettler, MA, LPA, director of Psychology at Cook Children’s, said finding the right words to describe what’s happening will be crucial to helping the child through such a difficult time and the way the message is delivered will depend on the age of the child.
- Very young children will not understand the abstract concept of death, and saying that “daddy is passing on” may be more confusing.
- Children should know that their parent will not be asleep, and some concrete things like “death happens when our heart stops beating."
- Kids will usually ask questions that they are ready to hear the answers to, so listen to what they are actually asking about and answer that. Most times they need more concrete answers than we expect.
- When answering, give kids some time to process … say a few sentences, and then wait until the child is ready to hear more.
“We often use a lot of words and kids under 10 may not be able to process more than a few sentences at a time,” Zettler said. “Make sure all the kids get the same info, but it may mean talking separately to the children if their age ranges are broad (example, a 3 year old and a 10 year old). Include both parents in the conversations if both parents able physically.”
Zettler says if you don’t know the answer to a question, it’s OK to say you don’t know (for instance, “How long can daddy play ball with me?”). Also, kids of all ages need the same information over and over again, so be prepared to have many conversations. They may ask you a serious question and after a brief, but accurate answer from the parent, they may go right back to playing and acting normally. That is OK … they are taking in the amount of information they can process at that time.
“Celebrate mom or dad’s life NOW while that person is still here; talk about what is happening,” Zettler said. “Don’t forget that kids need to play. That doesn’t change when something like this happens. In fact, playing is the best way that kids have to learn new coping skills.”
Remember to provide support for the children and notify caring adults at the children’s schools. There may be additional support that teachers, nurses and counselors can provide.
Read age appropriate books on grief/terminal illness together (parent and child, or as a family). Books on death may not seem relevant while the parent is “just sick,” but books on death/loss may be more helpful after the death. Zettler says examples of books on terminal illness and coping with that for kids are: “Beyond the Rainbow” and “Help me Say Goodbye.”
Zettler says some children may struggle academically early on. Some kids, however, may seem less disrupted and more able to keep up their school work. That doesn’t mean they aren’t grieving, or that their academics may not suffer later. If they are getting behind academically, and they have not had school problems, before, don’t panic. They will catch up. If they have had problems before in school, definitely reach out to school personnel and consider getting the help of a psychologist or therapist.
“Kids will be afraid, unhappy and may act out more than usual,” Zettler said. “Don’t see this as abnormal or behavior ‘problems.’ You can still enforce rules especially if kids get aggressive but be patient with each other. Try to help them find words to express their feelings. Tell them that it is OK to have feelings. Reassure kids with words, with your presence, and with other comforting things like maybe a stuffed animal. It is OK if they “regress” during this time and do things they stopped doing when they were younger. If they really struggle with this or with difficult behavior, see a psychologist or therapist who has experience with pediatric grief or loss.”
“Preparing Your Children For Goodbye: A Guidebook for Dying Parents” by Lori Hedderman.
About our sources
Cook Children's Behavioral Health services provides a broad range of care that focuses on children from ages three years through 17, and their families. We also have some limited services available for children age 2.
As part of family-centered care all of our professionals are qualified both through education and experience to work with children who have behavioral and emotional challenges. Our psychiatrists are board certified in child and adolescent psychiatry and our psychologists and therapists are all licensed independently in Texas.
To access any of our services, please contact our Intake Department. To expedite your call, please have your child’s date of birth and insurance information ready.