Losing a parent as a child
The loss of a mother or a father...
...as a child can be a trauma very hard to overcome, especially at a very young age. It has consequences that go beyond the death of the loved one. It changes the child, it changes its future, its personality, its beliefs, its fears, its cravings, the way the child perceives the world.
It is hard for others, who have not had a similar experience, to understand what this means. It is hard for the adults around the child to comprehend how it scars the child. This scar will last forever. It will be with the child as she grows, year after year, until adulthood and beyond into the old age and it will never disappear.
It is of the utmost importance that the adults around the child understand what this means, as they often don’t and often perceive the child’s pain as their own, when it’s nothing like it.
When I talk about a child I mean especially the ages from 4 to 10 or 12 years old. This range of age represents a time when the child does not understand at all the concept of death and no amount of explanations will help.
I don’t mean that losing a parent at any other age is easier, but when it comes to affect personal development and also when it comes to being able to intervene, in order to help this personal development to be smoother and more natural, I believe this an extremely important range of ages.
Until 4 years old everything is a bit of a blur, although losing a parent will then take a toll later on. And from 12 years old on the child has a different understanding, that allows the child to deal with death in a very different and more rational way.
MY PERSONAL EXPERIENCE
I find this subject is very important, because I lost my father when I was six years old. It was a sudden death that nobody saw coming and it changed me in ways that I didn't know were possible.
Because of this, because losing my father changed me and continues to change my life, because I feel it everyday as I make my choices and in the way I perceive the world and other people and because I think it didn’t have to be like this and that other children can have a smoother ride through life, I thought it important to write this article.
Everything is a bit of a haze. I remember my father was very happy that day. It was a Sunday. He got up in the morning, had his breakfast ( I suppose) and headed down to the backyard to plant daisies. I have no idea what got over him that day, I never saw him as someone who planted flowers, but then again maybe I was too busy with my kid’s stuff to have noticed or maybe I just don’t remember who he was.
Nonetheless it was a happy day, until little after lunch when he started having the heart attack. I remember when he grabbed his chest, his face the image of his pain, his mouth twisted in silence. I remember how I told him he couldn’t be like that, because the next day it was work day (little private joke between us) and my mother telling me to shush. I remember how he fell to the ground and just lay there never to get up again. I remember many other details, small silly details of a little child wandering around in the middle of all the confusion, without anybody noticing her, having no idea what was going on, but being absolutely certain that by the morning everything would be alright. When the morning came it wasn’t and I really couldn’t understand why.
I think a lot of people tried to make me understand that my father had died and that he had gone to heaven and that he wouldn’t come back. I remember that in those days everybody cried, my mother mostly and then grabbed me and held me close and kissed me and cried. And I didn’t understand any of that.
My mother cried for a very long time, she was struck with grief and it is not that she didn’t see me or noticed me, but she saw me as an equal in pain, that saw what she saw, that understood what she understood. My father had died. What in the Lord’s name could I possibly not get? I was expected to cry and suffer and move on, probably. Well, you can’t ask a child that. A child’s mind is not an adult’s mind. A child does not understand the same things, the same way, it cannot, its development does not allow it and one shouldn’t expect it.
So, what came out of this?
First the obvious and basic: losing some material comfort.
Then, losing a bit of my mother. She became a different woman, harsher. She had to. She was alone raising two kids, she had to work harder, she was alone with us, teaching us alone, double the responsibility, the fear that she might do something wrong, the fear that we would turn out bad and it was all on her.
Finally, losing what I could have been if I had him.
You see, from all that, the worse is how it changed me inside, how it conditioned my life and how I have to fight it off every day.
At first I wasn’t sure of what had changed, but I knew something had. I didn’t understand for a very long time why my father wouldn’t come home. I remember at the age of 8 or 9 years old dreaming my dad was coming home and every time I would miss his arrival and that really made me mad. On a stranger note I also remember thinking that perhaps we could go up to the cemetery (where I was told he also was – there and heaven?) and open the grave, because for sure he was alright and we could bring him home and why didn’t anybody think of that. It made no sense.
Then (kids are cruel), I remember at school others kids saying I had no father and so I used to come home and cry and cry for hours, asking my mom, why I didn’t have my father, when all the other children had a father and that I wanted him next to me so.
At the same time the balance a father gives was missing. You see, I believe moms and dads have different things to give to their children as persons, because their nature is different. So, if you only have input from one of them (mother or father, but just one, doesn’t matter which) you will miss certain things and teachings that only that one person may give you because it is his place and nature to give.
I also tried very hard to capture him, to capture his essence, which was all I could hope for, so perhaps that changed me also. I tried to find out who he was, not through what other people told me about him, but through what he left behind. I treasured his books, his writing, his photographs. I tried to reach him in the sentences he read in his books, what he had thought about them, what he felt. I tried so very hard, that I think now I became closer to him, than if he had lived and so he is, now and forever, my immortal.
In the long run I started picking it up as I grew, but the inexplicable feeling that I was abandoned, that my father had left me just because (although today I understand perfectly what happened) never went away. It’s not something rational, it is but a feeling. And then came the feeling that it could happen to anybody around me at any time, that nobody was for granted in my life and that what was true today, could very much not be so, tomorrow. It’s not that I cry, it’s not that I don’t live my life, it’s just that I live my life in spite of it, trying very hard its day to throw it to the back of my mind, so that I don’t allow it to run me over. I believe in the end it made me stronger, but why did it have to be so difficult? Why does it have to be so difficult?
Now, could it have been different? I think so. And that is why this article can make a difference.
MAKING A DIFFERENCE
Although I'm a strong believer in overcoming difficulties ourselves, I think a situation like losing a parent as a child is the exception.
I think that outside help is something the other parent must provide for the child. Probably the other parent is in no shape to help the child properly.
Even though, he or she, must try to the best of the abilities to reassure the child, tell the child how much she is loved, that the death of the parent is in no way reflex of the child's behaviour and that that parent is no longer with her, but that it wasn't his choice. This must seem basic, but it is not. These statements should be repeated to exhaustion, if necessary. So, the remaining parent must realise that the thoughts and the stream of thinking of the child is very different from adults.
Then, if possible, professional help should be sought. It is very important that the child is followed by a psychologist that understands what she is lacking and what she will be lacking in the future and what can be done to help her get through this in the best way possible.
A member of the family or a close friend should take it as his/her job to help the child get through this. As the other parent is probably (and will be for a long time) too grief struck to properly attend to the child's needs at this stage, another close person should do it. This means to talk to the child, to listen to her, what she thinks is happening, why she thinks that, explain how things will be from now on, what she can expect, what she can hope for. This is not something you do one day, this is something you will have to do on a daily basis for a very long time. And always, as silly as it may seem, reassure the child it was not her behaviour that brought this on her, reassure her she is loved.
Try to find other children or even adults who had a similar experience and have the child talk to them. They will understand her, she will see that, she will see she is not alone, she is not the only one and that will make so much difference.
Finally, school: in my days, and I think even more so now, teachers make a big deal out of each special day. One day it's mother's day, the other it's father's day, then valentine, then carnival, then...
Well, what if the father is no longer there? Every year I had to draw something on a postcard for my dead father and put it next to his picture. That was so frustating. Make sure you explain the child's teacher that it's necessary to give her a different treatment on that sort of things, make sure she does a little research on how to deal with these matters and make sure the teacher understands it might be necessary to involve the other parents and children at school. It's not that it's necessary to create a bubble, but it's that things should be done in a way that that child is not the one left outside the bubble in the pouring rain.
Losing a parent as a child is something that will not go away on its own, it is something that needs to be addressed by those around the child. As difficult as it is, it can make a difference on how the child will live its life.
Today, even more so because of my own experience, as a mother, I dread that my children may be faced by something like this.
As parents none of us wants to imagine our children to grow up in fear. Acting, tackling the problem is the difference between our children living in fear forever or not.
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© 2012 Joana e Bruno
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