Becoming a single parent due to the death of a spouse and co-parent has special challenges for both the parent and child. Not only are you dealing with your own grief and assisting your child(ren) in dealing with their grief, but you are also being forced to adjust to being the only parent. This is one time when it is perfectly acceptable to feel like screaming, “Life just is not fair!” It certainly isn’t.
First and foremost, dealing with the death of the spouse and co-parent should be your top priority. However, you and your child(ren) will deal with that pain in different ways and on different time schedules. There are a few things you can do to keep the channels of communication open and to share the grieving process with your child(ren).
• Discuss your child’s views of death. Let him/her talk without attempting to change their views. Try to understand what they believe and if possible, why they believe it.
• Share your views of death. This is not a “right or wrong” discussion, but rather a discussion of different perspectives.
• Be sure your child does not feel guilt – survivor’s guilt or otherwise.
• Emphasize the love that the deceased parent had for the child. Stress that the deceased parent was aware of the child’s love for them.
• Be both a parent and a person – share the grieving process with your child. Cry together; remember together. Don’t try to keep a “stiff upper lip” in front of your child. They need to know that it is normal to grieve.
• Allow the child the rituals they need to obtain closure. All children are very different. If they express an interest in viewing the body, allow them to do so. If they want to attend the funeral but are uncertain of the graveside service, do not force the issue. Do not attempt to tell them “what is best” or that they will feel better if… Even though we, as adults, believe that we know what is best, children generally know what they can handle and what they cannot. Keeping them from attending a service they wish to attend or forcing them to attend one they do not wish to attend will only make the process more painful.
• Maintain normal routines and rules. It is all too easy to give in to a grieving child when it comes to bedtimes and basic routines/rules; however, you are only setting yourself up for trouble later. Maintain as much normalcy as possible.
As you and your child progress through the grieving process, you will find that there are many issues that will arise. Many of the typical tactics used in divorce and abandonment surface during this time in the child’s attempt to manipulate the situation to their advantage. “My dad/mom would have let me…”, “If only dad/mom were here…”, and even then anger-inspired “I wish that mom/dad hasn’t been the one to die…” will become the words you dread to hear. Don’t take anything personally, because it isn’t meant that way. Think about the problems that adults have dealing with their emotions and than compound that by 1,000 – you now have an approximation of the difficulty that your child(ren) is having in dealing with the aftermath of death. Remember this when dealing with the situations that will arise.
In some cases, children will develop a fascination (or a bit of a morbid curiosity) with death and dying. If the parent was the victim of a particular disease, they will research it and perhaps ask questions about the possibility of the disease being contracted by other family members. If the parent was in an accident or the victim of violent crime, the child(ren) may become interested in crime statistics or fascinated by violent television shows or movies. They may become fascinated with the process of death and decomposition. Unless these curiosities reach a proportion where the child appears obsessed or indicates a particular interest in their own death, these are usually just a way of them working through the process of acceptance and/or understanding. Be sure to make yourself available for conversation at any time they need you with your priority being on listening! In any case, if the child appears to be obsessed, maintains unusual interests, or develops a fascination with is own mortality, counseling may be indicated.
You know your child best. However, remember that you are in a stressful and painful situation, too. The danger level that you may have set in your mind for your child may actually be much lower than you anticipate due to the fact that your own emotional state is out of focus. If family members or close friends become concerned about your child and you don’t see the issue, then set aside your perceptions and trust them. It is much better to ask for help and not need it than to need it and realize it too late.
Above all, keep the lines of communication open! It is incredibly important that you and your child talk on a regular basis and that your child knows that you are available to him/her whenever needed. If there is a tension between the two of you, make sure there is another family member or a close friend who is available to your child. Do not take offense that your child is more comfortable talking to them rather than you. Instead be happy that they are talking to someone rather than bottling it all up inside. The greater good for the child is what is the most important…