For a young child, the loss of a parent is an overwhelming crisis, unfeasible to understand. Children under five cannot grasp the permanence of death. Because of this, the first stage of grief is often a period of protest and hope that the lost parent will return. Many children will try to use fantasy to make this happen, imagining the missing parent in familiar circumstances or places.
Despair sets in, once the child begins to realize that the parent is truly gone forever. Infants, with their limited communication skills, generally express their distress by crying, feeding poorly, and being difficult to console. Toddlers will cry, be easily excitable and unhelpful, and may regress to infantile behavior.
Older children may become withdrawn. A preschooler might have a faraway look on his face, be less creative and less excited about play during this period. The more tormented or emotionally far-away the other members of the family are, the more intense a young child’s despair is likely to be.
Eventually, he will emerge from this mood of depression and begin to shift his love and trust to others. This does not mean that he’s forgotten the missing parent, or that the hurt has gone away.
Throughout his life there will be times when he will experience conscious and unconscious feelings of loss, particularly on birthdays and holidays, during special occasions such as a graduation, and when he’s ill. At these times the child may voice his sadness and ask about his missing parent.
If the missing parent was the same sex as the child, these questions most likely will come up often between ages four and seven, when he is struggling to understand his own gender identity. In the best of outcomes, these remembrances will be brief and positive and will not create serious distress. Children should be discussed with the pediatrician, if they are prolonged or if they noticeably disturb the child.
Losing A Sibling
It is also a devastating experience to lose a sibling. Though it might not strike as deeply as the loss of a parent, it may be more complicated because many children, even those old enough to understand how their sibling died, may feel that in some way they are to blame. These feelings may be intensified if parents, deep in their own despair, become withdrawn or angry and unwittingly shut themselves off from the child.
The surviving sibling must watch helplessly as his parents go through the same agony of grief that he would experience if he’d lost them. He will see first the shock and emotional numbness, then denial, then anger that such a cruel thing could possibly happen.
Through it all, he is likely to hear guilt in his parents’ words and voices. He may interpret this guilt to mean that they were devoting time or attention to him that should have been given to his lost sibling.