Tag Archives: children’s grief

When do children grieve?

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.

Scanned family 1960 best

 

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.   

family silhouette

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)

1-Mum and Dad's grave

Unexpressed Grief

My Dad was an avid sportsman; one of those people who excelled at any sport he turned his hand to. He played tennis, golf and cricket and competed in wood-chopping events at regional shows. He loved his farm where fattening cattle and growing cash and fodder crops allowed him to live his dream. He was a loving and doting husband and father and his children adored him. At 31, he was at his prime enjoying life and his young family.  

It was at this time that his life was cut short as a result of a car accident. He left behind his wife of ten years and four young children, aged from two to eight years. 

Today, the first of May, is the anniversary of my Dad’s passing. Although it has been 51 years, he has never been forgotten. 

I was his baby girl and at two years old when he passed, I have only vague memories of feeling safe and comforted when held in his arms. I do however, recall a time when I was wandering the house looking for him, feeling scared and alone, crying out for his attention. I believe this would have been sometime in the days following his passing. Although I never really knew my Dad, I have never doubted his love for me. When I tune into his energy now, I am filled with a sense of love and peace. 

As time passed, memories of my Dad faded and because of my age and lack of understanding of death, I never grieved for him. Due to the paucity of my memories, the need to grieve his loss didn’t even enter my mind, even as an adult.

However, unbeknown to me, I incubated this unexpressed grief carrying it with me throughout my life, until it needed to be released, like the steam in a pressure cooker. It was fifty years after his death, when the pressure valve was finally discharged and I was left emotionally spent. 

It was April 2012 and my niece, Abbie was getting married in an outdoor ceremony at a beachside resort. As she linked her arm through her father’s and made her way onto the rose petal littered carpeted aisle to meet her husband-to-be under the shade of a white wedding canopy, all eyes were on Abbie. 

But my eyes were fixed on her father, my brother. Bruce had walked me down the aisle when I was married 30 years ago, but this was different. This was his only daughter, and the pride and love he had for her was palpable.  

As I looked at my brother sharing a nervous laugh with his daughter as they edged closer to their destination, I saw him in a way different to how I had known him before. I saw him as the loving, doting and proud father that he is and this triggered something inside me. 

My eyes grew heavier until I could no longer fight the battle to hold back the tears and they cascaded down my face. Equally surprised and embarrassed by my outpouring of emotions, I did my best to keep a dry face, consoling myself with thoughts of ‘no one would be looking at me.’  

Little did I know at the time, this was only the start of my tears that day. After the reception and in the confines of my room, the floodgates were opened. The barrier had been breached and the floodwaters arrived. I was inconsolable, and sobbed incessantly and uncontrollably for over two hours until I finally fell asleep, totally exhausted. The following morning brought more tears and despite my best efforts to shut them down, they needed to come out. They continued to pour out until gradually easing off over the following week. 

Confused about the intensity of my emotions, I reasoned in my mind that it must be because I was menopausal. What other explanation could there be? However, deep inside, I had an uneasy feeling that I would never see my brother again. I was afraid that something was going to happen to him and I wanted to hold on to our connection as a family. 

It was another six months before I understood my emotional breakdown had nothing to do with my brother, but was an expression of grief for my Dad. When I saw my brother at the wedding and felt the loving connection he had with his daughter, I knew in my body what I had missed out on with my Dad. 

This was the first time in my life I understood on a visceral level what a strong loving relationship between a father and daughter could be like. And it saddened me to my core as it ignited the sense of loss I felt for my Dad but had denied for half a century. 

When I looked at Bruce walking Abbie down the aisle, I saw my father, not my brother. 

The feeling I had that I’d never see my brother again, was my two year old self knowing she didn’t get to say goodbye to her father. I knew the close family connection I was yearning for at the time of the wedding, had been broken all those years ago. For awhile, I tried to hold on to remnants of that family closeness by suggesting regular family get togethers, while knowing in my heart, the connection could never be repaired. The bond had been broken fifty years ago. 

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.’ 

It took 50 years for me to express my grief for the loss of my Dad. I had carried it for all those years without knowing it was even there, and without understanding it needed to be expressed. 

Today on the fifty-first anniversary of his passing, I lovingly celebrate and honour my Dad, Gilbert Thompson Summers (21.11.1930 ~ 01.05.1962).  

 

‘I cannot think of any need in childhood

as strong as the need for a father’s protection.’

Sigmund Freud

Kaye

01 May 2013