By: Trisha Knueven
As a nanny I have cared for three children who have lost a parent to death. I searched for answers on how to help these children long-term and came up short. The questions I set out to answer were:
-How does this significant death affect a child years later?
-How can I help the child?
-What is important to know about child grieving in order to support the child?
I found several great resources at my local library including a book I read cover to cover called Children and Grief: When a Parent Dies by J. William Worden. This book is mainly the conclusions of a Child Bereavement Study conducted by Dr. Phyllis Silverman and the author studying children between ages 6 and 17 who lost a parent to death. The study followed the children for 2 years after the death and compared them to a non-bereaved sample of children. Each chapter ends with a bulleted summary.
What I learned that was most helpful is that mourning is a process for children much like it is for adults. Just because a child is younger doesn’t mean death will not affect them. Throughout a child’s life the mourning process changes and the child makes adjustments. There are four tasks a child must process:
-Accept the reality of the loss
-Experience the pain or emotional aspects of the loss
-Adjust to the environment in which the deceased is missing
-Relocate the dead person within one’s life and memorialize the late parent
There are six major categories of mediating factors that contribute to grief reactions:
1. Death and the rituals surrounding it
2. The relationship of the child to the deceased parent before and after their death
3. Functioning of the surviving parent and their ability to parent the child
4. Family influences (size, solvency, structure, style of coping, support, communication, family stressors, changes, daily life disruptions)
5. Support from peers and friends
6. Characteristics of the child (age, gender, self-perception, and understanding of death).
The good news is that even as a nanny, one can provide the three things a child needs: support, nurturance, and continuity.
It takes longer for a child to adjust to the loss than an adult. Some reactions might not be felt for months and possibly years depending on the child. A child who has anxiety, acting-out behavior, somaticization, changes in self-esteem by not be adjusting well. A referral for treatment from a professional should be sought.
Activities that can be helpful include:
what a child worries about
what makes the child sad
a favorite memory
a recent dream
create your anger
create all the family members and have them interact
writing about thoughts, feelings, and questions about the lost parent
-Letters (Be careful this does not confuse the child into thinking the parent is just away and not dead)
write to the deceased parent
facts about the parent
facts about their death
fantasies about their late parent
redesign the funeral service
-pictures the child drew or draws to the late parent
-Read and discuss books together
The Fall of Freddie the Leaf by Leo Buscaglia
Aarvy Aardvark by Donna O’Toole
-Five Faces depicting five emotions where each child takes a turn telling about an experience that made them feel that emotion
-Question Box about death or funerals where children and an adult sit together to answer the slips of paper together
-It’s Not Fair When is played by passing a box and completing the phrase as the child slams the box on the floor
The book explains more ideas for helping children cope with their feelings and work through their mourning. This is just a partial list to get you started in the right direction. Of course, do not undertake any of these without the parents permission or without the direction of professionals.
Other books that might be helpful are:
Helping Children Grieve by Theresa M. Huntley
When Children Grieve by John W. James & Russell Friedman