Child’s journey following parent’s death can last a lifetime

As part of the 10th anniversary of the September 11th terrorist attacks, the nation will stop and remember the 3,000 victims of that terrible day.  But along with those remembrances comes the risk of forgetting another 3,000 victims: the children who lost parents on those planes, in those towers, and at the Pentagon.  The National Alliance for Grieving Children has put out a call for everyone to use the anniversary of September 11th to highlight the needs of children and teens grieving the loss of a parent or other loved one, not just those who lost their parents in such a highly public way.  What qualifies the San Diego Child Injury Law Center to speak on the subject of a child’s grieving after the loss of a parent?  Direct personal experience.


A child’s grieving process and resulting state can be impacted directly by the manner it which the parent is taken away.  Where a parent’s wrongful death is completely unexpected and possibly even violent, as in the case of a drunk driver or other traffic collision, the child’s reaction can be violent itself and the adjustment that much more difficult, because the parent’s death is seen as completely preventable.  Survivors are injured and traumatized every bit as much by careless or criminal conduct.  Compare where a death is the result of a long illness and the family sees the end in sight and has time to prepare, the reaction and adjustment may be more “predictable.”  And yet a middle ground exists: if a parent is sick, but the child or teenager fails to fully grasp the situation, when the end comes, it can be just as shocking to the child or teenager as when the parent leaves to go to work and never returns.


Perhaps the most important piece of advice I can offer about children and teenagers dealing with the loss of a parent is to recognize that every child grieves his own way and on her own timetable.  Children left behind embark on a process that can and very often does last a lifetime.  A lot can depend on the age and emotional maturity of the child or teenager at the time of the loss.  Siblings may grieve in very different ways.  Therapy can be very helpful, but efforts by well-meaning but ill-informed “pop psychologists” to impose artificial time limits on “recovery”  do more harm than good and can short-circuit opportunities for further growth and understanding.  The death of a parent often results in a child having to become an adult before he or she is are ready to shoulder that responsibility.  Recognizing that this is possible can ease the transition into this new phase of the child’s life.

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