How to Help a Child Who has Lost a Parent

Mementos_crop

A family friend, “M”, just 41 years old, passed away suddenly last week. He left behind two kids, ages 6 and 7 years old.

For much of the morning after hearing about it, all I could think about was the fact that two more kids had lost a parent that day, and what pain they are experiencing, and will continue to feel for a long while.

At such young ages, the kids left behind probably can’t really comprehend what has happened. A few years from now, it might even seem as if they’re almost completely recovered and moved on emotionally. 

But some of the toughest times for dealing with the loss may come years later, when, as a child who has lost a parent, you do start to understand what you lost. It may take decades to fully process the loss. They’ll always have that aching hole in their heart that I’ve talked about before, that all of us have after having lost a parent during childhood.

The good news is, kids are resilient in general, and with a strong support system, M.’s kids could turn out to be even stronger people because of this experience. However, it won’t be easy for them, and they’ll need a lot of help. If you know a child who has lost a parent, there are several ways you can help, depending on how well you know the child and parents, and how much time you have to spare. Even if you have just a few minutes, or a few hours, there are ways you can make a significant impact on the life of a child who is grieving the loss of a parent.

 

Making Memories Last:

Compared to what most people know about their parents, kids who lose a parent at a young age will remember very little about their deceased parent. They will know a relatively small amount about who their dad was as a person.

It’s often taken for granted that these memories will last – that, as friends and family of the parent who has passed, you’ll all be around to continue to discuss and share memories, but that is not always the case. Memories start to fade, people get busy and go about their lives, drift in and out of one’s life, etc.

But the child who has been left behind cannot so easily move on. As a young person who has lost a parent, the times when you need comfort or miss your parent the most may not be the times when there are people around to talk to or help. It’s often when you’re alone, late at night, when everyone else is asleep, when the loss of your parent hurts the most. It is at these lonely moments of weakness when the child needs to have something or someone to turn to, to look at, touch, read, or listen to, to feel closer to his or her parent who is no longer there.

So, if you know a child who has recently lost a parent, one simple thing you can do to help, is to put some mementos together for the surviving kids. I cannot even begin to tell you what even the smallest, seemingly insignificant memory of their mom or dad might mean to these kids years from now.

Mementos could include photos, or any notes, voicemails, emails, or gifts you got from the parent who passed away. If you can give them to the child to save, (or to the surviving spouse, if the kids are too young now) along with a note about what the memento means to you, it is something the kids will probably keep and cherish forever.

If you don’t have a memento, it’s just as effective, maybe even more so, if you have a memory or anecdote you can write down, or a story you can tell, and record, for the kids to keep and listen to or read in years to come. 

What would a child want to know about their parent? A few ideas, based on some of the things I used to wonder about my dad, years later, after he was gone:

  • What did he used to say about me? What did he like about me? How did he feel about me? How was I special to him?
  • What did you like most about my dad? What do you remember most about him? How was he special to you?
  • What was my dad like to other people? How did he impact the lives of others?
  • What were my dad’s strengths and weaknesses? 
  • What did my dad think I’d be like when I grew up?  What did he want for me?
  • How did my dad feel about my mom? What was their relationship like?
  • What traits do you think I share with my dad?
  • What was my dad like as a child or young adult?  

 

“Circle of Dads”:

 After the news of M.’s death spread through the community, I saw a lot of friends sharing memories and photos of him on facebook, which was a very nice way to memorialize him. It made me wish that such technology had existed 30 years ago when my dad passed away.

But will M.’s kids ever see these posts? Who knows if facebook will even be around, say, five or ten years from now, when these kids might want to remember their dad one day?

I recently read an article about a dad who had been diagnosed with terminal cancer, and before he passed away, he contacted several men, including friends and family, and asked them to look after his kids when he was gone. I thought it was a really touching idea. While of course no one can replace their dad, at least his kids would have someone to help carry on their dad’s memory, and be a father-figure in their lives.

But when someone dies suddenly, like my dad, or like M., there is no time to form a circle.

So maybe the survivors could form such a circle after the fact.

M. had lots of siblings, so his brothers will certainly be important figures in the lives of M.’s two surviving children. And he seems to have a close-knit group of friends, many of whom were the same friends from elementary and high school, so they have a long history of friendship, and many memories, of M. What the “Circle of Dads” would do is take turns doing dad-stuff with the kids, and act as a support system for them in their dad’s absence:

Take the daughter to her Daddy-Daughter dance.

Cheer the son on at his Little League games.

Applaud the daughter at her dance recital, or piano recital, or at whatever activities she pursues.

The circle of dads can also share memories about the missing dad, and do a lot of the things he may have done with his kids. And hopefully it can continue for years, not just the months following the loss. That is key, because, again, some of the toughest years come much later.

What are your thoughts? What would you add to the list of ways to help a child who has lost a parent? Your input is welcomed. I hope this information can be helpful to others who find themselves facing this difficult situation. If it helps just one person do one thing, save one memory or attend one function for a young person who has lost a parent, it was worth writing!

If you do not personally know a child who has lost a parent, you can still help a child or children by donating your time or money to an organization that supports children who have lost one or both parents. Such organizations include the Children of 9/11 Foundation, and Kate’s Club, which provides support, companionship, and activities for kids who have lost a parent.

Related:

Photo: Mementos of my father… a monogrammed pocket watch, (we shared the same monogram), his wedding ring, and his Rotary pin, on an oak desk my dad built in the 1960s.

Advertisements

How the Children of 9/11 Inspire Me: Giving Thanks for the 10 Years I Had a Dad

I remember watching the events of 9/11 unfold ten years ago this week, and thinking about all the kids who were losing parents that day. Hundreds of young kids became part of a club no wants to join. I knew, as I watched, that so many kids were in for some very long, sad days ahead, as I had experienced after my dad died when I was ten. While their experience as historic children of 9/11 would be different from mine in many ways, there are also many similarities. Watching and reading about the children of 9/11, it’s evident that much of what children experience losing a parent, and many of the emotions felt, are universal, regardless of the circumstances.

“I’ve stopped crying, but I’ll never stop missing him,” one son said of his father, a 9/11 victim. The son spoke at a 9/11 memorial ceremony, and shared his wish to make his dad proud with the young man he has become, and the life he hopes to live. As a child who loses a parent, you never know for sure if you’re making your lost parent proud, but you always hope and strive to do so. It’s one significant way to honor your parent’s memory – to live a life and grow into a person that would make him or her proud of you.

In a televised program about the kids of 9/11, one daughter, who lost her father at age 12, said that she’ll never forget that moment she learned her dad, her hero, a policeman, would never come home, that she’d never be with him again, never hear her dad’s voice, never hug him. That moment seems to be one that stays with kids forever. I know it did for me: the look on my mother’s face after returning from the hospital, and the fact that she had just walked through the door of our house, were not good signs that dad was alive, because she’d have still been there at the hospital with him. But when she uttered those words “he’s gone”, my world changed forever, as it did on 9/11/2001 for over 3,000 kids.

Over the years since 9/11/2001, People magazine has tracked some of the kids who were, at the time of 9/11, unborn. These kids were born to 9/11 widows after their husbands, and fathers of their children, perished in the tragic events of the day.

These kids never knew their fathers. They are now around ten years old, the same age I was when my father passed away.

I’ve often wondered: What would it be like to have never known my father at all? Sometimes I even thought it might have been easier in some ways. I would not know what I was missing, if I’d never met my dad. I would never have had to experience losing him that day when I was ten. Just as I’ve often wondered who I would be if my dad had lived into my adulthood, I also have wondered who I would be if I had never ever known him.

But after reading People’s ten year update about these young 9/11 kids, I can’t imagine how hard that would be, to have never known my father at all.

Because they were born after 9/11, these kids don’t have a single memory with their father to cherish. Unlike me, while I don’t have many photos, these kids don’t have a single photo with their dads. Many of the kids have developed various habits to help them to feel closer to the fathers they never knew:

One sleeps with her father’s shirt.

One surrounds herself with photos of her father.

One wears a necklace that reminds her of her father.

One boy feels close by eating his dad’s favorite foods.

One asks his mother to tell stories about his dad.

Another thing all the kids who’ve lost parents seem to have in common: they cherish others’ stories and memories about their parents, especially when they are told they look like their parent, or share some characteristic in common with their departed loved one. 

I’m not sure which would have been more difficult if my dad had died before I was born: never having known my father, or knowing that he never knew me. “He would have liked me,” said one 9/11 child about the father who never met her.

One thing these unborn children were spared, unlike the living children who lost parents in 9/11, is the trauma of having their parent taken from them. It’s probably the only good thing about having been born after their father died.

That day my dad died is one day, one memory, I could have lived without as a young child. If you lost a parent as a child you know what it’s like, especially if you were there when it happened; that experience stays with you forever.

Coincidentally, I had invited a friend over for a “play date” the day my dad died suddenly, so she was there that unfortunate day. Even though it wasn’t her dad who died, I think she may have been almost as affected as I was by the event. She saw what I saw. She was with me when I found my dad on the floor in the middle of his heart attack. After my sister called 9-1-1, my friend called her parents to come pick her up, but instead of waiting from them to arrive from their house about 5 minutes away, she ran out of our house into the pouring rain to meet her parents at the end of our street, because she couldn’t stand to be in the house for even a few more minutes. As I watched my friend run out the door, I remember wishing I could go with her – wishing I had a place to run like she did – a car that could pick me up and take me back to normal. 

But once you lose a parent, no matter when or how you lose him or her, you have a new normal, and you spend the rest of your life adjusting to it.

I look forward to the continuing coverage of the courageous kids of 9/11, who also have the media spotlight on them in addition to everything else they are enduring, to see how they are doing on future anniversaries. No matter what happens to them, they always have that unique bond with the other kids who were born to 9/11 widows, or who lost a parent on 9/11. Although they have experienced a heartbreak that is unfathomable to many, I know these kids will have a special strength and perspective on the world that will carry them through their lives without their dads or moms they’ve lost.

In watching another report on 9/11 survivors, one of them said something that stuck with me:. She said that for survivors of 9/11, this week is not just an anniversary of something that happened ten years ago – it’s the tenth year of something that never ends. That statement could not be more true for the children of 9/11 – for them, this is the tenth year of life without their parents.