“Love your parents and treat them with loving care, for you will only know their value when you see their empty chair” –Unknown. Currently, in America, most children take their parents or guardians for granted. Most children presume their parents are “out to ruin their lives” and are awfully bothersome. However, it is extremely difficult for a child to imagine their lives without their parents. What if a child woke up one morning to find their parent to be gone forever? To have a parent die dramatically affects a child’s life and makes them come to the realization of the thoughtfulness and love in their parent’s words and actions. In a national poll of 531 American children and teenagers who had lost a parent, 62% of the 531 children said they would give a year of their life to spend one more day with the person who died (“National Poll”). When born, a child is copiously dependent on their parents for love and life. Yet in the midst of growing up, children soon become independent and find love in and from other things and believe they are capable of taking care of themselves. Once a child’s parent dies the child is now considered a “bereaved child”. To be bereaved means to be deprived of a loved one through a profound absence, especially due to the loved one’s death. After a parent’s death, many bereaved children can suffer from long-term mental illnesses such as depression if they do not participate in activities to help with the recovery process. In the same poll mentioned earlier, 66% of the 531 children say that the death of their family member was the worst thing to ever happen to them (“National Poll”). The death of a parent causes children to respond with changes in emotion, attitude, and action and bereaved children of all ages must find activities to help them cope and recover from the death before they face long-term depression and despair.
Immediately following the death of a parent, children respond in irrational and unfounded means. Because children have had their parents around their entire lives, it is a huge shock to have their parents suddenly absent eternally and most children do not know how to respond. “They cannot reflect on their own behavior beyond the moment. They cannot distinguish between inner and outer feelings. They cannot understand that their parent has feelings of their own and that death was not a voluntary act. They need to be told that the cause of their parent’s absence has nothing to do with them” (Silverman). At such a young age, most children and teenagers do not fully comprehend the concept of death. They do not know how to immediately express their feelings and cannot accept that their parent is truly gone. It is found that many children blame themselves for their parent’s death because most children want answers and this seems to be a logical reason for them. Likewise, children often use anger as an immediate response to their parent’s death. This anger comes in forms such as “boisterous play, nightmares, irritability, or a variety of other behaviors” (“Children and Grief”). By using anger as a response, children often have attitudes toward their remaining parents and other family members. Children most likely use anger as a defense mechanism to hide their true pain and hurt. With the fear of looking weak, children bottle up their depressed emotions after death and release them in the form of irritation with others and often become extremely defensive about everything. However, anger is not the only emotion children fear after the death of a parent. Habitually, alongside anger children also feel fear. The fear of another death occurring in the family is a constant emotion running through a child’s mind. Because of this fear of another loss, children become extremely attached to the remaining parent and sometimes even develop mental illnesses such as separation anxiety and depression. Since children are in constant fear and bottle up their emotions, this often leads to a form of depression that usually lasts about a year but can last longer (Akerman and Statham). As a result of separation anxiety, children and even teenagers tend to respond to their parent’s death by becoming extremely needy and dependent on their remaining parents. “After a parent dies, many children will act younger than they are. The child may temporarily become more infantile; demand food, attention, and cuddling; and talk the baby talk” (“Children and Grief”). A great number of children believe that acting at a younger age is the only way to get comfort from their parents. The fear of the death of a parent has caused children to stray away from independence and become dependent on their parents once again. This dependence gives children a sense of safety and thoughts that nothing bad will happen again. However, after some time has gone by the child’s fear will decrease and the sadness will ultimately come like a flood. At this time, the child is overcome with sorrow and the thoughts and memories of their parent’s death overwhelm their mind (Perry and Rubenstein). It is not until some time has passed that the child realizes their parent is gone for eternity. After the fear leaves, children become extremely sad as they have had time to process death and the meaning of death. This realization is what brings sadness and can cause depression. Because a child had bottled up their emotions for such a long period of time, once the sadness appears, the guilty and melancholy child appears as well.
Although children may have some similarities in responses, different ages and maturity levels cause different responses to death. There are three different levels in which children act in different ways: the elementary level, middle school level, and teenager/ high school level. “A child of five to approximately nine years of age, in the concrete operational stage of cognitive development believes that death can be avoided. Furthermore, a child in this egocentric phase also believes that his or her parent died because either the parent was bad or the child was bad and that if the child is good, the parent can return. This is thus seen as one of the most vulnerable and difficult developmental stages for adjusting to a parent’s death” (Patterson). The elementary school age is a time when children have probably never been faced with the concept of death. The death of their parent brings about new, unfounded thoughts and experiences, and children of this age do not fully understand death. Because elementary school is when children have the biggest imagination, this leads to children believing their parents could do the impossible and rise from the grave. This thought often leads to a greater misunderstanding of death, which is why this stage is the hardest to accept the death of a parent. However, in the middle school stage children tend to not seek the reason for the death, but tend to just fill the emptiness left by their parent’s death. To do this children often use coping systems that “revolve around family interactions, and in particular, children’s relationships with their primary caregivers” (Donnelly and Connon). Middle school-aged children are able to comprehend death to a greater extent but are not quite ready to face it. To avoid the reality of death, children at this age search for family members and friends to help distract them. Because children at this age seek family members for guidance, these children often react to death in the same way these adults do. Similarly, teenagers in high school age tend to try to avoid the reality of death as well. “Teens are usually in a place of growing independence. They may feel a need to hide their feelings of grief to show their control of themselves and their environment. Teens often prefer to talk with peers rather than adults when they are grieving” (Lyles). As children are growing up and are beginning to get into their teen years, their lives are changing enough that the death of a parent would disturb everything. Along with the growing independence, teenagers tend to have a sense of rebelliousness that leads them to avoid talking about the situation with family and to converse with friends instead. Teenage years are the average time for enormous defiance to occur and the death of a parent can possibly lead to further disobedience. From the poll mentioned earlier 41% of the 531 bereaved children said they have acted in ways that they knew might not be good for them, either physically, mentally, or emotionally (“National Poll”).
To help with the recovery and coping process after the death of a parent, children do a variety of actions and activities to assist them in their restoration. After a child finally comes to the realization that their parent is not coming back, they focus on the love from living family members and friends to help them cope. In an article by Phyllis Silverman called ‘What Is Lost When a Parent Dies’ Silverman says that over time children will begin to forget the event of the parent’s death and will begin to remember the parent, who the parent was to them, and what the parent did for them. Furthermore, children tend to finally appreciate their living family members and friends and become thankful for these people in their lives. Children learning to become grateful instead of being pitiful for their lives levitates depression in a child’s life. Because they are seeing the good in their parent’s life instead of viewing the negativity of the death, children become happier and can cope with the death better. Likewise, a major way for a family member or friend to help a bereaved child cope with the death of a parent is to let them recover in their own way. Some children will find participating in sports the best recovery tool. Others may join a church to help the cope. “A little bit of distraction leads to more motivation to do more pleasant activities. You can start small and build” (“Recovery From Grief”). By children finding fun, enjoyable activities to participate in, they continue to seek the joy and happiness out of life instead of focusing on the darkness of death. There are infinite activities for children to participate in to distract them from the death of a parent. However, there are also infinite activities for children to participate in to directly confront death such as therapy and counseling. Although the death of a parent causes a hole in a child’s life, through the recovery children realize the important things in life. “The top two things children said the death of their family member has taught them is 1) How important my family is to me (78%) and 2) Life is not fair (72%)” (“National Poll”). Because of the death of a parent, children realize the importance of family and appreciate their living parent even more. Furthermore, children also realize that life is not always fair and that bad thing often happens to good people. Children who have lost a parent have had to grow up immensely faster and have had to realize the truth about life sooner than children who still have both parents.
Although children become involved in numerous activities to help with the coping process, if they do not directly face the death of their parent then over time this avoidance can lead to prolonged mental illnesses. “Prolonged fearfulness and anxiety is a difficult state to maintain, and can push young children’s developing bodies to their limits” (Donnelly and Connon). Children who do not come out of the “fear” stage tend to develop anxiety and depression. Over time, these mental illnesses can tear down young children and can even distract them from their life. If a child holds on to their sadness, depression lingers. “Most people show significant recovery from a grief-related depression within six months, but people who are still very depressed after six months are at high risk for remaining depressed for a very long time after that” (“Recovery From Grief”). The death of a parent can truly wreck a child’s emotions if they do not deal with the death correctly. When a child bottles up all of their emotions, it can cause them to become extremely depressed for a long period of time. “A parent’s death more than quadruples the risk for depression for children, adolescents, and young adults, new research shows” (Kelly). Children who have faced the death of a parent have the odds against them. Therefore, it takes extreme strength for children to recover from the death of their parents.
Children who have to face the enormous tragedy of losing a parent can face extremely dangerous conditions such as depression if they do not find the correct activities to help them cope and recover from their loss. If family members and friends do not help their child recover from the death of a parent, the child will have an extremely tough time maturing and continuing on in their life. Without support, children may go down the wrong path and will find themselves in a spot they wish they had never gotten themselves into.