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An Interview with an Expert
How Children Respond to the Death of a Parent

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                                Below is an interview with Pamela Woodruff, a psychology professor, at The George Washington University in Washington D.C. Professor Woodruff teaches a course titled Death and Dying; she absolutely loves this course and teaches it for the Fall, Spring, and Summer semesters. She experienced the traumatic loss of her husband when her daughter was only twelve years old. As a result, Woodruff has been able to watch and analyze her daughters development after losing a parent. She feels very passionately about the topic and was extremely helpful in answering some of my questions. After each question I summarized Woodruffs responses.

 

Q: From a childs perspective can you explain the various types of responses you find in the different age brackets and if there are any long lasting effects on children of a specific age.

      2-5 years old: These young children simply believe that the dead are somewhere else and expect them to come back. One example that are constantly exposed to is parents leaving for work and coming back, while another is the simple idea that flowers die and then come back.

 

      6-9 years old: These children tend to understand that the dead will not come back. They often think that people who die have to be old, involved in some type of accident, or died in war. They tend to personify death and compare it with cartoon images. For my daughter it was Shera and He-man and today you still see this on television. These children will also believe that if they are good and behave well they will be able to avoid death themselves.

 

      10 years old: These children understand that death is universal and that it can and will happen everywhere. They even realize it can and will happen to them.

 

        Some children practice magical thinking which is when they think something to themselves or say something and then it occurs or comes true. When this happens children feel as if they caused it to occur as a result of their thinking.  For example, if a child blurts out I wish you were dead to a parent and then shortly after the parent dies from health related problems or an accident etc. the child will believe that they caused their parents death. They will feel responsible for the death which is extremely difficult to deal with.

        Children also take things literally. For example, there was a seven year old boy who didnt eat and his father would always tell him You have to eat to stay alive. One day his father died suddenly at work and this small boy thought he killed his father because he didnt eat. Another example was a young girl who was told that her mother was going to be buried. This child thought that only the trunk of her mothers body was going to be buried and would frequently ask where her mothers arms and legs were.

        It is extremely important to let the child know that they did not cause the death of their parent.

        Another common feeling of grieving children is denial and this is seen when the child denies their parents death and believes that they will come back.

        After the death of a parent resulting from an illness, if the child experiences any similar symptoms that they saw their parent have they will begin to believe that they are going to die.

         It is interesting to see how many children will take on certain mannerisms of their deceased parent long after the death without being conscious of it. My daughter for example was twelve when my husband died and to this day she rubs her nose the exact way that my husband used too.

        After the death of a parent the child may begin to believe that the world is not a safe place and start to think about what would happen if their other parent died too.

        Children will tend to cycle in and out of sadness. You may see a boy extremely upset one minute and then outside playing in the neighborhood the next.

Q: What do you feel is the most important thing for a child during the time of loss?

      Reassurance from the parent is key. It is important to let the child know what is going on and what kinds of lifestyle changes will be taking place. You should tell the child that you will continue to live in your house, you will go to the same school, and continue your daily routines (only if  this is true in your situation).

Q: Do you think that a childs race, gender, or socio economic status affects their response?

      Definitely. In a female for example we tend to see them become more sexually active earlier in life.

Q:  What would be the most extreme reaction of a child?

      Some children will have the desire to kill themselves so they can be with their deceased parent.

Q: How do you feel about camps set up for grieving children? Do you support and recommend them? How long should they attend such a program?

      Of course. It is important for the child to know they are not the only one experiencing such intense emotions. It is also good for the child to hear about the different types of death that occurred to the other participants in the counseling group. The most important aspect of these groups is the validation that you are not the only one. The child should attend these programs for 4-6 months. There are even some phenomenal camps established to help grieving children.

Q: Do you know if children will have relapses of intense grief later in life if they experienced the death in childhood?

Relapses do occur later in life. These are particularly common during coming of age, graduation, marriage, can be triggered by a specific location or scent, and anniversary.

Q: Do you think that losing a parent as a child affects your parenting style?

I am not sure I can answer that question correctly.

Q: What does it mean if a child does not want to talk about their loss?

      They are in denial.

Q: Is there is difference between the response of only children verses children with siblings?

      An only child feels as if they have to take on a larger responsibility than a child with siblings where the responsibilities would be more diffused.

 

Here are some more large issues we discussed concerning children after the loss of a parent:

 

        The type of death also affects how you can prepare the child and how the child will respond. If it is a lingering death the child needs to be prepared before hand and encouraged to grieve ahead of time, this is generally more manageable for children. A sudden death you have to stay really close to your child and remember their literalness. If it was an accidental death the children need to hear that no one knows why accidents happen. If it was suicide the child will be experiencing feelings of abandonment. They need explanation such as suicide results from an illness when the person is filled with complete sadness; the child needs to be reassured that they were still loved.

 

        Some children will express their anger toward the parent, a doctor, or God.

        Repetition is key for children, they need to constantly discuss their emotions and have their questions answered. They also have to understand that it was by no means their fault regardless of how the parent died. Reinforce the idea that emotions are natural and important after experiencing death.

 

        There are various physical responses a child may undergo including pressure on the chest.

        Returning to school is a very difficult experience for children after losing a parent. Some children will express school refusal. A parent or guardian should inform the school ahead of time in order to accommodate the grieving child. Children will tend to shy away from peers because they feel as though they cannot get any comfort from them and peers may actually say hurtful things.

 

        Gender plays a role in childrens reactions to the loss of a parent. Boys for example understand that there are not encouraged to cry and must act like a man. They fear being called a sissy and often keep their emotions to themselves. For a girl it is acceptable to express emotion. It is difficult for all children regardless of their gender because there is no formula for coping with death and everyones feelings are unique to themselves.

        Some children will go mute, experience traumatic shock, or experience intense childhood depression.

 

Woodruff, Pamela J.
Adjunct Instructor in Psychology
    Psychology Department
    2125 G St NW Ste 206
    Washington, DC 20052

      Ph. (202) 994-6697
       woodruff@gwu.edu