When is the time right for a child to grieve the death of a parent?
At the time of the loss, even very young children can be aware of the separation that has occurred due to their parent’s passing. They may recognise their parent is not there when they used to be and they may also sense the emotional pain of others around them during this distressing time. Depending on the age and emotional maturity of the child, they may not understand the permanency of their loss until much later, possibly years later.
Most children will feel varying degrees of sadness at the time of the loss, and this is often shrouded in confusion about the meaning of death, and trying to understand their emotions and possibly the behaviour of others. This may be the first time that they witness their remaining parent or other caregiver crying. They may not understand explanations provided, if there are any explanations given.
While children express feelings of grief following their loss, they can not fully comprehend the effect this loss will have on them, much of this is not realised until years later, if at all. Many people will not be aware that such a wound inflicted during childhood, can impact every aspect of their lives for the rest of their lives.
The loss of a parent when a child is 2 or 3 years old may result in a fear of separation or abandonment which can translate into relationship problems for that adult child with them being clingy or needy in relationships or having an aversion to developing attachments to others.
The loss of a parent when a child is around 8 or 9 years old, can result in the child idolising that parent and believing they could never live up to the expectation of being a parent themselves.
My own childhood losses unconsciously resulted in such life experiences for me. Following my Dad’s death when I was two, I became a clingy child not wanting to let my Mum out of my sight. Over the years, I have experienced times of severe stress and inconsolable tears at times when I was separated from those I love, such as during hospital stays as a child, when my sister left home to get married and when I was about to leave for university. Even now, I can become teary when my husband is leaving for a weekend or week away from me.
My fear of separation was likely amplified when my Mum died when I was nine. Through my nine year old eyes, I saw my Mum as the perfect Mum; someone who could do or fix everything and who was always there for me… until she wasn’t. I put her on a pedestal, idolising the perfect picture of motherhood; a picture I knew I could never live up. Coupled with what I believed was a strong likelihood that I too would die at an early age, I could not consider having children of my own in case they were left motherless at an early age.
The loss of my parents obviously had a huge impact on my life, the extent of which I have only become aware of in recent years. And it is now more than four decades later. I have also come to realise that what happened after their deaths, primarily how those close to me reacted to the deaths is probably what had the greatest influence on me. While I can’t recall much following my Dad’s passing, I have clear memories of the days following my Mum’s passing. Memories such as the ‘explanation’ we were given for her death; statements such as “God only takes the best”, “Only the good die young”, “God must have needed her in Heaven.” Following these platitudes, it took me nearly forty years to be able to say the word ‘God’ without gritting my teeth and feeling tension in my whole body.
Following my Mum’s death, she was rarely spoken about in open conversation. Things soon got back to our new normal after her passing, in fact I only had one day off school, returning to school the day of her funeral. I wasn’t allowed to attend her funeral. Instead I watched from the school grounds next door to the church and within view of the cemetery.
Although I shed bucket loads of tears for my Mum over the years, mainly in private, I never really grieved MY loss. As a child, I got on with what was expected of me. However the pain of my loss burned like an inferno inside of me, until it started to consume me thirty years after my loss. It took me another ten years to realise that I was harbouring feelings of grief that had never been expressed, despite all the tears over the years. And surprisingly, I discovered a pocket of unexpressed grief for my Dad buried in my body as well, as I wrote about this time last year in my blog, titled Unexpressed Grief.
It took me over four decades, but eventually I gave myself permission to express my grief. Well, I didn’t have much say in it really, as the tears flowed like water over Victoria Falls. I recognised that I needed to acknowledge MY pain, as it was MY loss. I finally allowed myself to FEEL my pain, and to feel the sadness I held for what I missed out on as a daughter. Instead of judging, denying, ignoring and trying to suppress or push my feelings away, I welcomed and embraced them. Once I made them welcome, they were free to leave.
Following my ah ha moment of the need to express my grief no matter how long it was since my loss, I wondered whether other people knew of this what-I-consider-to-be-a revelation. I pondered whether the time is ever right for a child to fully grieve the death of their parent. When is a ‘good’ time to revisit your childhood pain? I labelled my feelings of pain and sadness as inappropriate whenever they arose, as it had been twenty or thirty years since my loss. I now know it is imperative for us to feel our feelings and to cry as many tears as we need to, for the pain of our loss, no matter how long we’ve been holding on to that pain. I learned the hard way, that it’s never too late to feel our feelings. As Karol K Truman discusses in her book of the same title “feelings buried alive, never die.”
Do adults who were a child when their parent died, ever revisit their grief and complete the grieving process? If so, did they do this in their early adult life or much later in life? I don’t mean to imply that we ever get over our loss, as things are forever changed and we may always have feelings of sadness, but I’ve come to understand that we can reach a point of completion or full acceptance that the death was not wrong or a mistake and that it was time for our loved one to pass.
It is recognised that children less than three years of age have little or no understanding of the meaning or significance of death. However, that doesn’t mean they don’t feel the loss or that they don’t need to grieve. This grief may go unrecognised and unexpressed for many years, waiting patiently for as long as it takes to have its expression.
Renown grief expert, Dr Elisabeth Kübler-Ross wrote in her book, On Death and Dying (1969) ‘grief has a fail-safe mechanism that will hold itself intact until a child is old enough or psychologically prepared enough to deal with it.’
So when do children grieve? When is the time right for this expression? Is it two, five, ten or twenty years later, or like me fifty years later? Or do most people never complete their grieving process but transfer their original unexpressed grief from childhood onto their next loss?
Today on the anniversary of my Dad’s passing, I dedicate this post to him as well as to my Mum, and send them both my love and appreciation for the short time we got to spend together in this lifetime.
Your daughter, Kaylene (Kaye)