03 July 2008

When a parent dies

One of the greatest challenges of parenthood is to help children cope with loss. The greatest loss of all is the death of a parent. How do we help our children cope?

One of the greatest challenges of parenthood is to help children cope with loss, whether it is the loss of a loved one, friends or abandonment by a parent. The greatest loss of all is the death of a parent.

A common response is to try to protect children by withholding information from them or avoiding the subject altogether. The remaining parent and relatives may also feel that they cannot express their own grief in front of the children for fear that this may further upset them.

How do we help our children cope with the death of a loved one? Because if this is not dealt with properly, it could cause problems later on in their lives.

Fouzia Ryklief, director of the Parent Centre, gives the following guidelines:

  • Don’t hide your grief. It helps the child to see that others are also sad. Tell the child that you are also sad, but that you will take care of him.
  • The news is best told by a parent. However, if the surviving parent or relative is too distressed to do this, then another caring adult known to the child must do it.
  • Tell the truth. It helps to say to a child: “a very sad thing has happened. As you knew, Mummy was very sick and the doctor has just told us that she died (or there has been an accident). We are going to miss her.” Don’t say things like “your father has gone on a long journey” or “God has taken him away”. Children between the ages of eight onwards know what death means. Try and answer the child’s questions.
  • If the children want to attend the funerals, let them. This helps everyone to accept the death. Allow them to see the body if they so wish.
  • Help the children to express their feelings and thoughts. When children do not speak about a loss, it does not mean that they are not experiencing it. Help them by saying: “I know you must miss mama very much”. A flow of tears may follow. Allow this. Don’t try to pacify them by saying: “Don’t be sad”. Cry with them if that is what you feel like doing.
  • Reminisce. Help them keep their memories alive of the parent who is gone. Don’t avoid talking about the person. Look at photographs of the deceased with the child and talk about the events surrounding the photographs.

It is also important for parents to allow themselves to mourn the loss of a loved one. Parents may be so focused on supporting their children that they do not take care of their own needs, says Ms Ryklief. “Make sure that you have your own support network to cope with the loss and give yourself the time to adjust to the loss.” - (Ilse Pauw, Health24)




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