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Determining How Death Will Impact A Child

A child’s degree of injury or suffering following the death of a parent or other loved one is dependant upon several variables:

A) Significance of the deceased person
Obviously, the quality of the attachment the child had to the person to begin with impacts how much grief and suffering a child will endure following the loss. The closer and more significant the attachment, the more severe the threat to a child’s welfare.

This generally puts parental loss at the top of the harm equation. But not always. Unfortunately, some children have poor relationships with a particular parent to begin with, and may be barely impacted by the death, at least in emotional terms. Whether it be a parent, a friend or other family member, the greater the attachment, the worse the grieving and the greater the injury. Along this same principle, losing a close friend may be more troublesome to a child in emotional terms than losing a parent if the attachment is stronger with the friend.

Also of importance is the significance of the person in relation to other attachments. Kranzler et ale (1990, p. 517) point out that, in sentiment echoed by numerous researchers, “the highest symptom scores were found in children who, before the loss, had a (now) deceased parent who was highly involved and a surviving parent who was relatively less emotionally involved in their lives.” Losing a beloved parent is easier to cope with when there is another loving parent to fall back on. But when a child loses his or her primary caretaker and is left with the less involved, less, nurturing, less secure attachment, the loss takes on added significance.

The sex of the parent can also potentially playa role. Some research has indicated that the early loss of a gender-opposite parent predicts higher rates of depression and other pathology in adulthood. (Kivalae et al., 1998) This is likely because mounds of research has shown two things: A) Children naturally gravitate more towards affection from the opposite sex when both caretakers are equally nurturing, and B) Opposite sex caretakers play a significant role in the sexual and social development of the child.

Maternal separation or death has been shown to be a much more potent risk factor than the loss of a father. (Harris et al., 1986) This, however, should be interpreted cautiously. In our society, mothers tend to be more involved in the child’s upbringing than fathers, creating a sociological bias in the research. The more significant factor is likely who was more involved with the children’s upbringing, who had built a stronger attachment …not that mothers are automatically more indispensible than fathers. Still, it seems pertinent to explore these differences, though with the understanding they only show general trends and may not apply to every situation.

Worden (1996) found that fathers were more likely to have problematic relationships with their children than surviving mothers. In general, surviving fathers often described themselves as initially unresponsive to their children’s needs. Families that had lost a mother also experienced greater changes in daily routines than those who had lost a father, and the team found that the burden of these changes fell most heavily on daughters, who often assumed a much greater responsibility for household tasks and in the care of their siblings.

B) Age of the child
The first five years of life (early childhood), along with early adolescence, are widely believed by loss researchers to be critical periods for parental death. (Osterweis, Solomon & Green, 1984, Chapt.5) The reason for this is that both are sensitive periods in a child’s life. Early childhood because of the massive developmental milestones that occur during this age, combined with a child’s dependency on their caregivers and sensitivity towards attachment issues. Adolescence because it’s a vulnerable life transition, and any additional hardships will make a child that much more vulnerable. The age of the child also impacts how they grieve. Younger children tend to have problems expressing their emotions or processing the death, and this interferes with the grieving process, something fundamental to their recovery from the loss.

C) Family instability
The family stability after a death plays an important role in how the child fares. Death often interrupts the normal flow of family trajectories, redirecting the course of family development. (Shapiro, 1994) The resulting family instability is a natural risk factor in any form. So not surprisingly, one team of researchers found that the most powerful predictor of adult psychiatric disorders among those who endured childhood parental loss were unstable elements in the home environment following the death. Several factors can alter family dynamics and stability following a parent’s death:

1. The death may significantly impact economic stability, and set the family on a path towards financial hardships or a much lower socioeconomic status, even poverty. When the family’s sole breadwinner is no longer there, everything can change overnight. The remaining parent may not have the same earning potential, knocking the family into a lower income bracket, something that is detrimental in and of itself. Even when income isn’t significantly altered, this adjustment of roles can be difficult enough.

2. The remaining parent must adjust to being sole caretaker and sole provider practically overnight and without warning, another difficult challenge.

3. Children are often forced to take on adult roles or responsibilities after a loss. Girls may take on greater household or childhood duties, boys may be thrust into x a ‘man of the house’ position.

4. Families often face relocation after a parent’s death, which will put additional stressors, turmoil and instability on the child.

5. Much like parents after a divorce, the surviving parent is faced with the task of rebuilding their social lives, which involves dating, new partners, and potential step-parent situations. All of this distracts from parenting and also creates new instability, as children must adjust to new adult authority figures or stepfamily situations, a process that often takes 2 years or more per family adjustment.

D) Symptomology in the surviving parent
The extent to which the psychological health in the remaining parent is disrupted has a tremendous impact on the outcomes for the child. (Tremblay & Israel, 1998) As the aforementioned researchers note, parental death “may leave the remaining parent ill-prepared to continue in his or her own role, let alone take on the functions of the deceased.” (p. 424) According to some adjustment rating scales, teh loss of a spouse is rated as the number one most life disrupting and stressful event. (Rosenberg, Rand & Asey, 1991, p. 40) The remaining parent loses a lover, a friend, a partner, and a companion. They also lose a significant support figure in day to day functioning.

When the remaining parent is unresponsive, depressed, and otherwise struggling themselves, children are often left out in the cold. It tends to create ill-equipped caregivers at the very time in their lives when a child needs their parent’s warmth more than ever before. This is a toxic one-two punch. (Kranzler et ale 1990) found that the single most powerful predictor of child disturbance in their study was self-reported depressive symptomology in the surviving parent.

E) The grieving process
The grieving process is crucial to a child’s recovery and adjustment following the death. When children aren’t able to properly grieve, they don’t properly heal. Often time, a rush to restore the family to daily functioning may lead to complications in the grieving process. A parent’s own pathology may render them unable to give children the support they need. Then there are those families where emotions are suppressed or otherwise regarded as taboo (Be a big girl, don’t cry). When mourning behaviors (crying, communication, or shared grieving) are restricted among the family after death, children tend not to heal properly.

Being able to talk freely with the surviving parent and other family members about the death appears to protect against later depression. (Tremblay & Israel, 1998) Communication in helping children adjust to death will playa crucial role in post-loss welfare and functioning. Those least able to discuss their grieving emotions are the most likely to be disturbed. (Kranzler et al., 1990)

F) Post-loss support for bereaved children
Proper post-loss care and nurturing, along with continued strong attachments in the child’s life, can buffer them against a loss. (Bifulco et ale 1992, p. 446) state that “with adequate care prior to and after the loss, the risk of adult casernes is not apparently raised …therefore, the results suggest that it is the quality of (post-loss) attachment and not the trauma of the loss that holds the key to later psychological well-being.” In other words, while the death of a loved one is certain to cause pain, hurt, and trauma, whether or not it causes lasting injury (something entirely apart from trauma) is dependant upon the amount of love, nurturing, support and affection the child receives afterwards.

When this is strong, children should recover without having lasting impairments. When it isn’t, the pathology that develops in response to the death can last throughout life. Therefore, a child’s welfare is largely dependant upon a number of factors that deal with post-loss support:

1. The remaining emotional support a child is left with. The shrinking of the extended family has been one of the most tragic consequences of the modern lifestyle. Once upon a time, children were regularly cared for not only by parents, but by grandparents, aunts, uncles, and other extended family members. They developed primary attachments that extended well beyond their parents. The phrase “it takes a village to raise a child” was at one point taken literally. If a child lost a parent or other significant support figure, it was certainly traumatic, but at least they had alternate caretakers with established attachments that were already developed to fall back on.

Nowadays, some children are raised by single parents in relative isolation to other family, and quite literally have only one developed attachment. When that person is gone, children are thrust into the world without a lifeline. As you might expect, this is sure to be a most horrific experience. The ideal time to create other close attachments is before the loss. But since that likely isn’t an option, it’s important a child be given strong nurturing, affection and emotional support by as many people as possible. Not only is this nurturing akin to much-needed water to a child dying in the desert, but as these emotional attachments develop and grow stronger, it lets them know that there are many sources from which to draw love and affection, which will help reduce the problems that come with an insecure attachment predisposition.

2. The strength of these remaining attachments is important, along the same points discussed in section A.

3. How well the various roles performed by the deceased parent are fulfilled, reshaped, or left vacant in his or her absence.

4. The availability of surrogate caretakers to step into each of these roles and fill the void.

5. A child’s attachment predispositions to begin with can impact how well surrogate caretakers are able to fill the void. A child who was overly clingy and otherwise had an anxious or insecure attachment personality will have a harder time accepting and drawing comfort from this alternate support, especially at first.

6. In the cases of parental loss, a high level of care and affection from the surviving parent predicted positive outcomes following the loss. (Tremblay & Israel, 1998)

7. Absence of a surrogate father figure (whether it be stepfather, male relative or neighbor) and a high-level of continued situational stressors are linked with more severe child difficulties. (Kaffman & Elizur, 1983)

* * * * *

Finally, as with every other significant event involving kids, it is the accumulation of these risk factors that spell out the greatest disaster. No matter what the subject, studies consistently show that children are most always resilient against anyone risk factor. But when you start stacking them on top of one another, that’s when damage sets in.

Unfortunately, it’s all too easy for one risk factor to start a cascading cycle: a death leads to a lower income, parental pathology, and several years of instability or transitions, and all of a sudden you’ve got four or five risk factors, which are quite predictive of lasting harm. Death is out of our control, but do all you can to reduce or eliminate these other risk factors. If one can’t be avoided, make up for it by extra support in another. Do all you can to provide the nurturing, stability and support you can muster to a bereaved child, so one event does not cascade into an enduring trauma.

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