You Ask Dr. McCune
About Children and Grief–in the Long Term
Lorraine Mccune, Ph.d.
believe that if a loss occurs when a child is too young to know
their parent personally, or to remember a parent who has died,
that the impact is less than on an older child or adult who has
had the opportunity for personal caring with that parent. From
my own experience I can say that the impact of the death of a
parent in infancy differs from later loss, but the effect of even
the earliest loss is life-long. My father died in WWII when I
was 6 months old. My earliest awareness included a sense of loss,
a sense that continued through childhood and early adulthood.
My fatherís death was a defining event in my life. Only as a mature
person was I able to let my father and my loss go, experiencing
some pain in the process, followed by a new lightening of feeling.
I wonder if the grief of the others around me, and their inability
to provide a gradual knowledge of loss along with a sense of safety
as I grew up, kept me on the treadmill of orphaned sadness. Perhaps
there are ways of helping children with grief.
Some come to mind . . . The early loss of a parent is a lifelong
condition. In addition to the sadness of their loss, a parent
also leaves a legacy of love and guidance. As children grow and
change, their sense of loss will naturally be re-experienced and
perhaps deepened. Adults can help by empathizing with their loss
as the children show their renewed feelings. They can also help
the child to know the parent they have lost. Photos, family stories
of the parent at their age, even meeting people that were close
to their parent can help. In early and later childhood and as
an adult these experiences helped work the impossible magic of
bringing my lost father close to me. Knowing my fatherís strong
qualities, some of his foibles, and the thoughts he expressed
about me have given me the father I never knew when he was living.
Sometimes a child can feel a need to carry on the life and goals
of their lost parent. This can be an impossible burden that interferes
with the child developing new attachments. If a widowed parent
remarries, a child needs to know that it is OK to care for the
new person in their parentís life.
It is challenging to help children with these life issues, especially
for a living parent who is also confused and grieving. Knowing
the parent who died would wish the best for the loved ones remaining
can sometimes give courage.#
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