A Child's Experience With the Death of a Parent
Kids Grieve Too
Having a parent die is an earth shattering event in a child's life. When this happens, the adults who are taking care of the child are so busy dealing with their own shock, grief and pain, the child's pain is often overlooked.
Many people think that young kids cannot comprehend death. My dad died when I was only six years old. I understood exactly what was happening, and I was every bit as devastated as my mother was.
I Remember My Dad
I remember my dad. He was a smiling man who threw me up in the air and never failed to catch me. I never questioned his love for me. Having him disappear from my life was like having the earth crumble from beneath my feet.
My Understanding of Death as a Child
Only a few months before my dad's death, the family dog had been killed by a car. It was a very upsetting thing for me, but I learned what it means to die. It meant that her little body was still and she was gone, she was never coming back.
My dad drowned in a scuba diving accident. The last time I saw him he was in his scuba gear, waving to me through an underwater window. I was unaware of the events taking place that day, I only knew that I was sent home with family friends, and later my mom came back, but my dad did not.
It was not until a few days later that the minister came to our house and broke the news to us kids. I was the oldest of four. Maybe the others didn't really get it, but I did. The grown ups could talk about heaven, but the cold fact hit me like a brick. My dad's body was lying still somewhere, never to rise. I would never see my dad again. Not in this life anyway.
Kids Suffer Even if They Don't Understand
Just because my siblings may have had less immediate understanding of our father's death, that didn't mean they didn't experience just as much grief. They certainly knew he was gone. It may even have been harder if they didn't fully grasp the fact that he would not be back.
The Five Basic Stages of Grief
This is just a very rough basic list. They are common experiences, but not everybody goes through the stages in this order, some may skip a step or even go backwards.
Accepting That He's Never Coming Back
My family were devout Baptists. I was encouraged to pray, which I did. I am not sure that it was really the healthiest thing for me though. In Sunday school we were taught that God can do anything, even raise the dead.
I think in a situation like that a parent should make sure the kid understands, even though they have been taught that God raised Lazarus from the dead, and Christ also rose from his grave, that will not happen to their parent no matter how hard they pray. It's not just unlikely, there is no chance that it will happen.
Kids go through the same stages of grief as adults do. I think that I really fell into the bargaining stage with my prayers. If I prayed hard enough maybe God would change his mind. I did not really think it would happen, but I tried. Of course, eventually I had to accept that this was my new life. My dad was gone, and he was never coming back.
All of this happened in 1963. At that time, I was really in the minority, being a kid with no dad. Even though it has been over fifty-six years since his death, I have missed my father every day of my life. How different my life would have been if not for that fateful day.
Father's Day Without a Dad
In those years, when father's day came, there was no alternative for kids who didn't have a dad. I was the odd girl out. The few other fatherless kids I knew were children of divorce, and that wasn't nearly as common as it is now. Now, most schools are sensitive to the fact that there are fatherless children in the class.
Today, plenty of kids grow up without their dad, most lose them through divorce or estrangement. For many of those kids, their dad was never really around at all. I guarantee you that every one of those kids has some kind of fantasy about their dad. At least I have some memories, and I know that I once had a dad that loved me.
Care-Taking a Child With an Absent Father
If you are a caretaker of a child who's father is absent from the family, do not denigrate their father, and be aware that the kid hears things you say to others. If the father is a person you knew, try to find some positive things to say about him. If you are the child's mother, there must have been something good about the man who fathered your child.
I'm not saying that you should lie, or make up some fantasy figure. Every human has some redeeming qualities. Maybe he loved music, and the child does too. Maybe he was a skilled mechanic, or had a great head for figures. Maybe he just had a magnetic smile, or a certain twinkle in his eye. He gave your child life, and half of their genes. Even if he is unknown to them, you should recognize the fact that a father is an important person in a child's life.
This content is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge and is not meant to substitute for formal and individualized advice from a qualified professional.
Questions & Answers
What do we do when this doting father simply left, married another and gave up his parental rights because he could not pay the child support?
That's a sad situation, but it is still best to try to avoid voicing anger about money or infidelity in front of the kids. He may not be a good father, but he is still their father. If they ask why he doesn't see them, tell them you don't understand how he could do it either. As they grow up, they will have to make their peace with what he did.
What if the doting father simply stopped calling and moved to another state?
If he's moved away and cut off all contact, there's not much you can do. Of course you should reassure the child that she's done nothing wrong. It's OK to say that her father has problems, and some people are just not cut out to be parents. Still, avoid ranting about him in earshot of the children, no matter how much you think he deserves it.
What if my daughter's father is a drug addict?
Do what is necessary to keep the child safe. Still, it is not a good idea to belabor his faults in front of the child. If she is old enough to understand the situation, you might explain how addiction can change a person.
We might still love an addict, but need to distance ourselves from him because of his behavior. I have had to do that with my own brother, but I am sure to let my niece know that I still love him and wish him the best, even though I can't be around him right now.
© 2015 Sherry Hewins