Question from Margaret: My husband of 16 years passed away a little over 6 months ago. He was not ill, so it was shock to me and our two sons, ages 10 and 11. My husband had a temper, but never, ever laid his hands on me. Now, my 11-year-old is pushing me and hitting me, and I do not know what to do. Can you help?
Neil Chethik, author of FatherLoss, responds: I’m very sorry to hear about the death of your husband, and about your son’s personality changes following it. This must be a doubly painful situation for you.
I conducted a study of how sons deal with the death of their fathers (the details are published in my book, FatherLoss), and I found that it is not unusual for children to show their grief through anger and aggression. It’s important to recognize that your child has not become bad or evil, but he is desperately angry, and with good reason: One of the foundations of his life has been taken away, and now, as the oldest son, he may be under pressure to be “the man of the house.”
I suggest that you take his aggression as a call for help to recapture a sense of stability in his life. Children in the 6-12-year-old age range are especially vulnerable when a parent dies because they are old enough to know intellectually about the finality of death, but not emotionally mature enough to process it. Your son needs to know that you will be there for him no matter what (he’s lost one parent already), and that he does not have to fill his father’s shoes (he’s way to young for that).
Given that he is physically lashing out, I would strongly suggest that you seek out a therapist (preferably with a specialty in grief) for you and your son. If you don’t know any therapists in your area, contact the nearest hospice. We think of hospices as being for the terminally ill, but many of them also offer grief therapy to families that are dealing with a loss. If your local hospice does not, they will be able to refer you to a good grief therapist in your area.
The death of a father is a watershed event for a pre-teen son, and it will affect him deeply for the rest of his life. But, as I found in my study, with the proper care and treatment, your son will be able to recover, have a good relationship with you, and live a full and satisfying life.
If you want to see more about my book on FatherLoss, go to www.NeilChethik.com and click on the book cover.