Losing a parent is extremely hard, and when you’re young and don’t understand what grief or loss is, it’s confusing to have your mom or dad there one day and then suddenly removed from your life the next. There are instances when a child is so young that they don’t remember having that parent at all. If your mother dies when you’re two, for example, you might not recall any memories of her. That can be even more painful in certain ways because you miss what you never actually had.
When you had the opportunity to develop a relationship with your parent and then they pass away, that’s a different sort of trauma. Let’s say you lose your mother to cancer when you’re 10-years-old. You’ve had 10 years to bond with her, have her teach you about the world, go places with her, share stories and celebrate holidays together. Then she gets sick and you start to lose her gradually. You watch her go in and out the hospital and not quite understand what’s happening. Finally, one day she is gone and you’re left without the woman who gave you life. It’s a devastating thing for a child to experience.
Children have a limited understanding about what death is depending on how old they are. If a child is quite you, for example age five or six, they might understand the concept of death in the context of a pet dying. This is something that they may have experienced firsthand. But a person dying is something that hits a child much harder. Some children experience the death of a grandparent at a young age, and this can be traumatic. They watch their parent struggle with the loss of their mother or father. This can leave them feeling helpless and confused.
When you’re a child, you’re taught to believe that your parents will be around for a long time. They reassure you that they won’t die for a long time. If this turns out not to be true, it feels like a betrayal. You were promised that mom and dad would be around to see you grow up, go to college maybe get married and possibly have children of your own. Now, those moments have been stolen from you. You’re left feeling abandoned because a disease or accident has taken your parent from you. As a young adult, this can leave you feeling depressed and alone.
Sometimes when a child loses a parent they become angry, begin acting out at school or at home. This is natural because children don’t know how to cope with the loss of someone so close to them. They lash out to try to manage their big feelings since they can’t articulate how much pain they’re actually in.
What can we do to help them? Finding a mental health professional to help the child manage their grief can be life-changing. A therapist or counselor is someone who can help guide a child toward acceptance and healing from the loss of their parent. You might be thinking, “How can I find a therapist near me? There are many options for therapy, including online therapy, which is convenient and easy to use. If a child is grieving the loss of their parent, a therapist can give them the help they need.
Sarah Fader Bio
Sarah Fader is the CEO and Founder of Stigma Fighters, a non-profit organization that encourages individuals with mental illness to share their personal stories. She has been featured in The New York Times, The Washington Post, The Atlantic, Quartz, Psychology Today, The Huffington Post, HuffPost Live, and Good Day New York.
Sarah is a native New Yorker who enjoys naps, talking to strangers, and caring for her two small humans and two average-sized cats. Like six million other Americans, Sarah lives with panic disorder. Through Stigma Fighters, Sarah hopes to change the world, one mental health stigma at a time.