When a Parent Dies Young…
Covid patients are once again filling hospitals. Everytime there is another surge, I can’t help but think about all the children who experienced the death of a parent. In April, the journal Jama Pediatrics published a study asserting that around 43,000 children in the U.S. alone had experienced the death of at least one parent due to COVID-19. The road to acceptance for children is often difficult. I know all to well how those children feel.
A parent’s death can trigger many other deaths, such as the belief that your parents will always be there for you, one’s sense of stability (this is especially true if they have to move &/or change schools), faith (if they were raised in a religion), trust in people, trust in institutions, etc. My dad’s death triggered many deaths. For example, I was raised Catholic, but my faith in God died with my dad.
My father died in a federal prison in Oklahoma in December of 1992, he had only been there a few months. He became sick with flu like symptoms and developed pneumonia. The prison guards and officials took so long to make the call to transfer him to a hospital that he died from pneumonia. His death was preventable, he most likely would have lived had the prison officials acted faster, maybe they would have, if he was a non-Hispanic white man. If he had not been Hispanic, maybe they would have seen him as a human being, instead they let him suffer. He died alone.
My mother didn’t take me to therapy of any kind. It didn’t even seem to occur to her that I may need it…
I am not a therapist or a psychologist, but I would recommend if your child has experienced the death of a parent to take them to see someone for their mental health, even if it appears that they are handling it well. They are unlikely to tell you that they need mental health care for a number of reasons, for example, they may not realize that they need it, especially if they are younger. In older children, they might be deliberately acting as though they are okay to feel a sense of normalcy or they may be doing it for your benefit, thinking they need to be strong for you.
My mother didn’t take me to therapy of any kind. It didn’t even seem to occur to her that I may need it, it certainly didn’t occur to me. I did need it, I just never received any. Every child needs someone to advocate for their well-being during this time, if the other parent is unable or is unwilling to fulfill this need, then a grandmother, grandfather, aunt, uncle, etc., should at least try to convince the other parent to do the right thing. If the parent refuses to do anything themselves and the child trusts you or another family member or close friend, you or the other trusted adult could offer to be the one to take them. In many states, all that is needed to take a minor child to see a doctor, therapist, psychologist, etc. is to have the child’s parent, legal guardian or medical power of attorney fill out and sign a form. Usually, this form is easily obtained at the office of the chosen mental health professional or on their website. If not, the child’s health insurance provider or your state or county health department may be able to provide it, if not they can at least point you in the right direction.
My mom and I had never really got along, but the second she spoke those words, I hated her.
If the other parent recently passed away, having to inform your child/children is a daunting task. If you have more than one child, you will likely be facing 2,3, 4+ different reactions. If the children are close in age, you may want to tell them at the same time.
If you have some older, some younger, consider telling them in 2 or more groups. This is because the way you tell a younger child should not include specific details that may add to the trauma they already experience in just knowing their parent died. Don’t just say their parent died and nothing else, you can say something like, they were sick and didn’t get better. This approach essentially leaves out the more specific details of how the parent died, details that older children may demand to know. Start with the older ones, you don’t want them to find out after a younger sibling runs to them crying, but make sure that the younger ones will not hear you.
Every child is unique, as is the way they experience their parent’s death. If you do have more than one child, they will each experience it differently. I can’t tell you exactly what to say; however, I can tell you not to do it the way my mother did. She said, my father died and she wasn’t going to the funeral, but that I could go if I wanted to. She would be with her boyfriend instead. Keep in mind, she was still legally married to my dad when he died.
My mom and I had never really got along, but the second she spoke those words, I hated her. I was in such a state of shock and outrage, all I managed to say was that I was going; inside, I was seething. Why would she give me the option to skip my father’s funeral? I saw it as extremely disrespectful. Did she honestly think there was even the slightest chance that I would say I wouldn’t go? If she thought that, then it was as I had known it was for a very long time, she didn’t know me at all.
You expect your parents to die before you do, you do not expect them to die while you are still a child.
I was completely outraged, not only did she believe my dad didn’t deserve her presence at his funeral, but she also believed it to be perfectly fine to have a 10 year old attend her father’s funeral alone, while his widow spent time with her boyfriend. She did, unfortunately, end up attending, which was the result of days of my grandmother and the aunt she had left me with since summer vacation started, repeatedly telling her that it was wrong that she wasn’t going. I say unfortunately because honestly, the second she told me she wasn’t going and I could go if I wanted to, I didn’t want her anywhere near me or my dad.
One of the worst things someone told me during that time was that they knew how I felt. This person meant well, but they knew nothing about how I felt. It is not the same as a parent dying when you are an adult. I have explained it to others this way, you expect your parents to die before you do, you do not expect them to die while you are still a child. Consider this, my dad died the month before I turned 11 years old, now think about how old you were when you experienced the death of a parent, maybe they are both still alive so you haven’t experienced it yet. It is so very different to have a parent for less than 11 years or 8 years or 15 years than it is to have them for 50+ years, 65+ years. It is not easy to think in those terms if you haven’t experienced what I and now countless children have also experienced.
I was far closer to my dad than I have ever been to my mother, which made his death more traumatic for me.
I was more than old enough to remember my dad, more than old enough to know what was going on, more than old enough to remember a lot of what was said and done in the days before, during and after his funeral. Remember to take that into consideration, saying things that you may not consider a big deal can negatively affect your child and/or their relationship with you. For example, when we arrived at the viewing, we walked up to the casket to see my dad for one of the last times and my mom said "he gained so much weight" whether she meant for me to hear her or she was just saying it to herself didn’t matter, I heard what she said. Things like that reinforced my belief that she didn’t care about me or my dad and it will cause further harm to your child.
I was far closer to my dad than I have ever been to my mother, which made his death far more traumatic for me. It may sound bad, but even now almost 29 years later, I think it would not have been as difficult if my dad wasn’t the one who died, if it had been my mom instead. I know how it sounds, but I used to daydream that my dad was still with me and my mom was the one who was gone. It’s not that I wanted her to die, it’s just that if one of my parents had to die, I didn’t want my dad to be the one.