When children lose one of their parents to death, they may worry that their other parent will die as well. This worry can also come if another person who has been very important to them (such as a grandparent) dies. What can we do to keep those worries to a minimum?

We lay the first piece of groundwork for keeping anxiety from growing too large by helping bereaved children have a clear, understandable story about their loved one’s death that makes it specific to that person.

What does that mean? It means using words the child can understand to tell him/her the basics of what happened to the loved one who died. The initial message is that something (specify what) made the loved one’s body stop working and then he/she died. It’s important to be honest but we don’t have to give every detail. The explanation is tailored to the individual child at his/her developmental age, with his/her concerns.

Very small children will need to know that “dying” means that their loved one can’t breathe, eat, talk, move, go peepee, or feel pain any more. Older children can make use of terms like “ heart attack,” “disease called cancer,” or “car crash.”

Give just the basics at first, then listen to the child and answer questions as they come up. Tell children what they want to know but no more than they are ready to take in at the time. This will be somewhat different for each child in the family. Expect starts and stops—a question now, then another several hours or days later.

Little children often ask the same questions over and over because they need repetition to get the idea of death; they need the same concrete answers over and over. Older children often need to “chew” on one level of explanation, then ask for more details or further explanation.

Soon the child is beginning to have his or her own story of the loved one’s death. This story includes 1) an explanation of the cause of death using concepts that are true and meaningful to that child at his/her age; 2) some understanding of death itself, including the idea that the body stops working but that our memories of him/her are ours to keep—and if it fits with the family’s beliefs–the person’s spirit or soul lives on; 3) the child’s perceptions of what happened right after death, including the funeral; and 4) the child’s feelings at the various times in the story.

This can be a story that the child tells to an adult who writes in down, a story the child illustrates in pictures, one that a little child plays out (sit down on the floor with him/her as he/she plays it, when possible), one that an older child compiles on the computer or his/her favorite electronic device. It’s important that an adult gently correct any misperceptions. It’s also important to keep the framework that this is a story of this specific loss.

When children have a clear, usable story about the death of their parent, it is much easier for them to grasp that this is about that one person, not about all other adults whom they care about. We can refer back to the story when the child starts to worry about the other parent—who doesn’t have heart disease, who doesn’t have cancer, who always wears her seatbelt, etc.

The second piece of groundwork we can do to minimize anxiety is to re-establish some kind of routine, with regular bedtimes, meals, and “together” time. When there is a death in the family, everyone’s world turns upside down.

Not only is the loved one no longer there, but every part of the daily schedule gets out of whack. Children and surviving parents are tired, stressed, and discombobulated. This is a breeding ground for anxiety that the world will never be a safe place.

So talking openly about what can remain the same and what will need to be different (“Bedtime is still 8:00 and we’ll still read a story. Now, Mommy will read you the story and tuck you in. We can talk about Daddy and remember Daddy but he can’t read to you any more”) is reassuring to children and lessens anxiety. So is saying, “I’m sad, but I will still take care of you.” These are clear messages that clear messages that the surviving parent is still the child’s parent.

The third piece is for the surviving parent to find time to really be available and present to each child each day, as soon as possible after the death. (And from the very beginning, to draw on other adults to spend time with the children.)

This is hard because it’s easy to feel overwhelmed and get distracted. Sometimes we try to multi-task, texting or checking out Facebook while in the same room with the child and hoping that’s good enough—but it isn’t. So it’s important to get the supports you need by way of adult company and practical support (say “yes” to offers of meals) so that you can truly listen to, play with, and be present for your child for at least 15-20 minutes each day. That way the child won’t feel that he/she has lost both parents after one has died.

Children understand if they are told their parent can’t talk to them right now and they need to wait until the special time before bed–but then that special time needs to happen. The children will know that the parent is still there for them and that lowers anxiety.

Often these three steps—having a clear story, re-establishing a routine, and knowing that the surviving parent is still really there—are enough to keep worry about the surviving parent manageable. If they aren’t, parents can use some specific techniques to deal with anxiety. I touched on these in the 1/12/12 Open to Hope Radio interview and will give a case example from our book “10 Steps for Parenting Your Grieving Children” in a later written piece for the site.

Anne Berenberg 2011

Anne Berenberg

Anne Hatcher Berenberg, Ph.D. was widowed when her children were young. She is a clinical psychologist in Northfield, Illinois, specializing in work with children and adolescents and their parents. She has a B.A. in Social Relations from Harvard University, an M.A. in Psychology from Boston University, and a Ph.D. in Clinical Psychology from the City University of New York. With her new husband, Jack Cain, she is the co-author of Now: Overcoming Crushing Grief by Living in the Present. Her new book, 10 Steps for Parenting Your Grieving Children, written along with Vicki Scalzitti and Jack Cain, is available on Amazon.

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