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When a Child Loses a Parent

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Guest blogger Jessica Katz: My 11-year-old brother was possibly one of the most sensitive, best-behaved children you would ever meet. He had been mellow and easy since he was born, and always did well in school. But when our dad died in September, everything changed in an instant. He became a maniac. He never cried and never mentioned anything about our dad. If you tried to ask him how he was doing, he would not even answer, and would immediately change the subject.
kid at a cemetary
I bought him a journal and told him he could write to our dad there and express his feelings. He shared an entry wherein he'd written to our dad, "You will never know if I get married. We will never go to a water park or make that smoke bomb." He clearly knew that dad was gone.  

On the day of the funeral, his behavior became almost unbearable. He was hyper and obnoxious and even peed on some graves at the cemetery after the service. He kept knowingly asking dumb questions and being really disrespectful to my mom. He wouldn't follow instructions and was all over the place. He was having nightmares and wanted to sleep with my mom. And he was challenging everyone around him. Everyone was grieving in their own way, but he was not overtly sad or depressed; he was just annoying. 

When he finally met with a therapist, she told us that he was very depressed and that this misbehavior was a very common way that children expressed depression. She also said that although he wasn't the one not eating or crying or sitting in bed all day (like my sister), he may be worse off. 

Dr. Jenny Eide, PhD, says, "Children express depression and post-traumatic stress by avoidance. They avoid what is going on. It is very common for their behavior to become ornery or uncharacteristic as a way of showing their depression and sadness. They just don't know another way to express it." 

My brother continues to go to therapy and support groups, but his behavior has become more than my mom can bear, leaving her exhausted and frustrated. The fallout over a lost parent is huge. Everyone is grieving differently, and when a child grieves so unconventionally, it is taxing -- especially when other family members are also grieving.

What can you do? Tell the child that every Monday (or whatever) you are going to ask if they want to talk about their loss. Most times they will say no. Some Mondays they will think about it, then still say no. Tell them that if they ever decide that they do want to talk about it (to you or someone else), you won't make a big deal out of it; you will just get them help. That way, at least they will know that they can count on the fact that you will always offer. 

If they ever talk about suicide, take it very seriously and take them straight to the hospital. Even if they were just testing you, they will learn that threatening suicide is a very serious thing and something not to be joked about. 

In the meantime, remember that everyone grieves in their own way. And there is no time limit. The death of a parent is a profound loss at any age. But children often have trouble realizing that the loss is permanent, and they can't organize their emotions the way an adult can. So get them help and be patient.

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6 comments so far | Post a comment now
KS November 10, 2010, 7:42 AM

I am so sorry for your families loss. Due to my husbands line of work this is a constant and pressing fear of mine. How do you help your own children navigate a devastating and all encompassing loss when you can barely breath yourself? I hope to never have to answer any of those questions.

Have you all considered the big brother/big sister organization. When my husband was very young his own father died and his mother signed him up for a big brother. His big brother is still a very close family friend. My husband credits his relationship for getting him through some tough years and also filling in the gap where his father had been.

I know it may be to soon to consider such things. I can tell you though that without that relationship my husband probably would have continued to act out.

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