No matter what stage of life you are at, the death of a parent can feel like the Earth has tilted off its axis. The loss of your loved one’s support, guidance, presence and enduring love can give rise to feelings of emptiness and anger, and even lead to chronic health conditions such as anxiety or depression. Or, perhaps you and your parent had a complicated relationship or were estranged. This can also cause complex or confusing emotions to pop up that can be difficult to process as time goes on.
Parental bereavement has significant emotional and physical consequences, however, it can also lead to personal growth. Additionally, we know that no matter what age the death of a parent occurs, both children and adults require emotional support (including professional mental health support) when grieving and healing from a loss.
How a parent’s death affects a child at different ages
Many view grief as an emotional response to loss. However, grief also has physical, behavioural, social, cognitive, spiritual and philosophical effects to look out for. If a child you know has lost a parent at a young age, it can be helpful to understand how they are affected by this traumatic life event so that you can support them. Ahead, we look into the effects of losing a parent as a child.
Infants (0-2 year olds)
For little ones aged zero to two, their response to the loss of a parent may be apparent through changes in their everyday patterns, such as eating, sleeping and bowel and bladder movements. As infants can feel a physical absence, if you are the caregiver, you can focus on physical touch such as holding and cuddling them. During this period, it’s also important to stick to a routine as best you can.
Preschoolers (3-5 year olds)
Those aged around 3-5 may view death as something that isn’t absolute. So, in their eyes, the parent who has died may continue to live on, and they may believe that in the future, their parent will come back to life. Children of this age often convey their grief through creativity or play. They might draw their parent or even develop an imaginary friend as a way of ‘dissociation’, where they find a way to disconnect from reality.
You can support grieving kids of this age by playing with them and entering their world, or asking them questions about what they are drawing or playing with. Keep in mind that the child may want to know more details about their parent's death as they come to terms with their grief. They may repeatedly ask questions, and you can do your best to support them by answering them honestly and simply (that means trying to avoid any euphemisms for death as best you can).
Primary schoolers (6-11 year olds)
At this age, children begin to learn more about death and a realisation forms that it is not a temporary state of being. They may be curious about death, asking lots of questions and wanting plenty of details. You can help them understand by listening patiently to their questions and answering them as best you can. Additionally, be honest about your personal feelings, as this shows the child that it is perfectly normal (and even healthy) to express their feelings of grief.
Adolescents (12-19 year olds)
By the time kids become adolescents (aka teenagers), they have a better understanding of death and our mortality. They understand that it happens to all of us and that it is permanent. They may also look at things through a spiritual lens, wonder about what happens after death, or express their grief through art, writing or some other creative form.
You can help by encouraging these healthy behaviours and calmly listening to them. For example, if they are angry or yelling, allow them to let off some steam and listen attentively before you respond, rather than immediately telling them to relax. As mentioned above, you can be there for them when they need you and answer their questions as thoughtfully as you can.
Re-grieving in adulthood
A recent study by the International Journal of Environmental Research and Public Health (2022) sought to understand integral lessons we can learn from those who experienced the death of a parent as a child. Eight women and six men were interviewed – each who had lost a parent at least five years before. At the time of the interview, the participants were between the ages of 21-41, with the average age at the parental death being just over 16 years old.
In this qualitative study, participants reported experiencing periods, years later, when their grief returned in adulthood, and where powerful feelings of sadness, anxiety and longing were exacerbated. As they matured, the participants reported a more urgent feeling to share life’s stressful and exciting moments with their loved ones. This was particularly prevalent around milestone events such as graduations and marriage. Notably, when participants were met with difficult times, an increased yearning for their deceased parent grew stronger.
It’s important to remember that grieving is a process, and we do not ‘move on’ from grief – rather, we ‘move forward’ with it. It is not uncommon for those who have experienced childhood or adolescent grief to begin a period of re-grieving in adulthood. Know that professional help is always available, as well as grief support services.
While losing a parent at a young age has been shown to lead to significant emotional and physical consequences, we know that it can also lead to personal growth. If you are a caregiver, a friend or supporting a loved one through the grief of a parent, know that listening to them, spending time with them and talking about the person they lost can help in more ways than one – at any age, and any life stage. When in doubt, you can seek professional advice from a healthcare professional.
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Disclaimer: The content of this blog is intended to provide a general guide to the subject matter. This blog should not be relied upon as legal, financial, accounting or tax advice.