When a Parent Dies

BY: Helen Fitzgerald

 

Debbie Jospin's account

of her husband's death, and of the way she broke this terrible news to her young children, highlights many of the tough decisions that face a parent when a tragedy like this occurs. Fortunately, Debbie had a lot of common sense and made a whole series of good decisions quickly. I wish that every parent faced with such questions would have Debbie's story to turn to. It's a wonderful case history with a powerful lesson for other parents.

What are the issues facing parents when there is a death in the family?

  • Do children really grieve, or do these things just wash over them?
  • When the news is grim, should children be told? Wouldn't it be better to gloss it over, saying, for example, that Daddy will be gone for a while? Maybe they will forget him in time, or you could tell them some years from now when they're older.
  • Should children attend the funeral? Wouldn't it be better to leave them with a baby sitter? Why do they need all these tears?
  • Should children attend the burial service? Isn't this too much for a young mind to absorb?
  • If the parent or parents are traumatized with their own losses, how can we expect them to think about the needs of their children? Can't this wait?
As recently as twenty years ago there was still debate in this country about the ability of children to grieve, as though this were a peculiarly adult reaction. We now know that even very young children, pre-schoolers, are able to understand the meaning of death and to express their often strong feelings of sorrow, anger, guilt, and fear--emotions that, suppressed, could lead to future problems. What applies to the youngest obviously applies to older children, as well. Clearly, grief does not wash over them. Like adults, they have a grief process to go through.

There can hardly be a more difficult task than telling a child that a parent has died. Children are dependent on their parents for everything that is important to them--food, shelter, love, and identity. When a parent dies, all of that can change. It is natural to want to protect a child from the harsh truth that a parent has died. The temptation to sugar-coat the truth is a powerful one.

I had a mother come to me one day to ask me how she might, at last, tell her children that their father would not be returning from that trip she had told them about when he had died months before. I gave her some suggestions, but just think what that revelation was going to do to that mother's credibility with her own children. How can you recover from that?

Nothing is more important than trust between parent and child. Lying, even when it is well intentioned, undermines that. With this in mind you have to know that telling your children something that they eventually will discover is untrue would be a mistake. And you would be surprised how children can stumble on the truth--from neighborhood gossip, classmates, even old newspaper clippings lying around the house. This doesn't mean that you have to be brutal in your approach to the facts, but whatever you say has to be the truth. I think Debbie approached the problem about as well as one could hope for.

Continued on page 2: »

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