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There’s no way to sugarcoat the situation: Losing a parent can be the most traumatic thing a child will ever experience. Although there’s enormous variation in the quality of parents and the relationship they have with a child, and this will determine the severity of its impact, when the bond to the deceased was strong, the death of a parent is hands-down the worst thing that could ever happen to a child. As stated by Aretha Franklin, who lost her mother at a very young age, “the pain of small children losing their mother defies description.”

The death of a parent & its effects on children

A child’s entire existence revolves around the care and attention of their primary caregivers. They are the people closest to a child who know them in ways few others can. They are a child’s primary advocate and often their sole means of social support. Parents are the gods of a a child’s universe. A youngster’s existence flows through them. When this important connection is severed, it’s as if children are left adrift in the wind, uncertain of who they are, where they fit in, who will love them, or how to go on existing in this suddenly chaotic world.

Parental loss deprives children of an enormously significant source of affection and emotional support at the very time when they need it most. (Tremblay & Israel, 1998) On top of this it’s quite common for the remaining parent (if there is one) to be overwhelmed with their own grief and suffering from depression. This tends to leave their remaining caregiver lethargic, distant, and less responsive. (Worden, 1996) As Vanessa Bryant remarks, a few people have said that when one parent dies, their surviving parent died to, even though they were physically present.” (Leonard, 2021) Which means not only is a child left struggling with their own grief, but they may have to cope with a surviving parent who has largely checked out of their life as well. Together it’s as big a blow to a child’s foundation in life as one can muster, aside from being removed from the home and placed in foster care.

The degree to which children are impacted by the death of a parent will depend on a number of key variables:

  • The quality of the relationship they had with the deceased parent.

  • The quality of the bond they have with their surviving parent (assuming there is one)

  • The degree to which a child has developed pre-existing bonds with other caregivers, such as grandparents, aunts, uncles, and so forth.

  • The level of pathology in the surviving parent

  • How responsive, supportive and affectionate the remaining parent/caregivers are to a child’s emotional needs in the aftermath of loss.

  • The degree of disruption that occurs to family dynamics and roles.

  • The age of the child at the time of loss (very young children and older teens tend to cope better, whereas grade school children and younger adolescents struggle more)

Children are more resilient when surviving family are able to minimize the disruptions to a child’s life and keep the rest of their environment as stable as possible. It also helps if a child has close, pre-existing ties with other caregivers, such as grandparents or an aunt or uncle, which can help cushion the loss.

The types of parental loss

The unfortunate reality is that not all parents are created equal. Some are more nurturing and competent than others. Which means not all parental loss is the same, either. The death of a parent comes in 4 basic variations, depending on family dynamics:

1. A child is orphaned
If a child was being raised by a single parent and only ever had 1 parent to begin with, then losing that person leaves them an orphan. In other cases, children are unlucky enough to lose both parents at the same time–a tragedy that happens more often than you think. A car crash might kill both parents while sparing the children, or someone who perpetrates a crime against the parents might leave the children unharmed.

Sometimes children lose both parents in quick succession from unrelated causes. Their mother dies of breast cancer, and then their father is killed in a car accident 3 months later. Cases such as this are extremely difficult, because they leave children shell-shocked, convinced that nothing in their life is stable.

Whatever the case may be, whenever the death of a parent leaves a child orphaned, it’s more than bereavement kids are dealing with. It’s typically the loss of everything they’ve ever known in life. Their entire foundation is pulled out from under them. Like a weed plucked from the ground, they must now abandon all they’ve ever known and go try to set up roots elsewhere, whether that’s foster care or a relative’s house. It’s an extremely difficult transition to make, and depending on the new supporting cast they inherit, one many children fail to make successfully.

2. When a child had two involved parents and loses one
Some children are lucky enough to have two equally involved parents. Both are loving, nurturing, and equally cherished by the child. Losing either one of them is a major catastrophe, but it isn’t as threatening to a child’s welfare, since they still have a remaining parent they are close to with an already established bond. So it’s not as though the rug has been completely pulled out from underneath them in terms of love and nurturing. So long as their remaining parent +remains+ loving and attentive, this will help them weather the storm.

In other families, however, one parent is a child’s primary caregiver, and thus their main source of love and attachment, whereas the other parent is less involved. Even when they inhabit the same house, the child has one parent they rely upon for comfort and support. Which leaves 2 other possible scenarios:

3. A child loses their primary caregiver
When a child is close to one parent but not the other, and then loses the parent they are closest to, it’s nothing short of a disaster. Depending on how lopsided this imbalance has been, it can feel as though they might as well have been orphaned. The one person in the world whom they could count upon for love and support is no longer there. So they’re going to feel helpless, alone, unloved, and adrift in the universe, often quite angry at everything and everyone around them.

When a child loses the non-primary or uninvolved parent
Speaking strictly from a child welfare standpoint, this is by far the easiest situation to deal with, since it leaves their primary attachment in tact. Yet that doesn’t mean such a loss is harmless. It can be complicated by many other issues, and often leads to problems for the child when it disrupts the stability of the environment.

What type of parental loss has your child endured?
It’s important for surviving family to be honest with themselves about these parental dynamics, because children grieve each type of loss in entirely different ways. How you handle the death of a primary caregiver can be completely different from how you handle the death of a more emotionally distant parent. The rest of this chapter will take you through the nuances of each type of loss, helping you provide the type of comfort and support children need in each situation.

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