The death of a parent is one of the most difficult and painful experiences for a child. Though some children cope and adjust, many don’t, and thus may go into a form of shock, causing great difficulty in coping and moving through successful adjustment.

For children as well as adults, the realization of the loss may be quite traumatic and the beginning of a long and painful life journey. In many instances, the loss of a parent will profoundly affect a child’s development and sense of security within himself or herself. This can also lead to chronic depression at the time of the loss as well as at certain times in adult life.

Recognizing the importance of this pivotal event for children is as important as acting to address the child’s needs. Timely and effective response to the child’s needs
is critical to ensure that both short-term difficulties are addressed and a foundation for long-term communication is established. As such, it is important for caregivers to consider what they can do to help their child cope with life-changing loss. Here are some practical tips for helping children in this situation.

1. Listen to Your Child: Caregivers helping their child cope with the death of a parent need to listen to the child and explore and gain insight into how the child understands death. Children have different ideas about what death means to them and how they feel about it. This information can help build better rapport for ongoing communication and support with your child about death and loss.

2. Communicate About Death: Caregivers need to let their children know that talking about death is important and acceptable. Although death remains a subject that is often considered taboo in modern culture, when death occurs and has such a significant impact on the child, honest communication will be important. Communication allows the child to express his or her feelings while deepening the relationships with caregivers providing support.

3. Understand a Child’s Limitations: Children of different ages will have unique reactions to a parent’s death. Educate yourself about how different age groups respond to death in order to better understand your child’s reaction. While a child’s reaction may seem unusual, it may be appropriate given their age and level of cognitive maturation. Understanding these nuances may provide you with better insight into how to support a child during this difficult time.

4. Take Care of Yourself: The death of a loved one can have a substantial impact on your life – one that is overwhelming and difficult to address while providing care for a distressed family. Recognizing your own needs and limitations will enable you to take better care of yourself. Seek counseling and activities that can help you feel better. This will be important for coping with the demands of helping your children to cope more effectively.

5. Know Your Limitations: Even though caregivers can provide important supports for children following loss, there may be instances in which caregivers are unable to meet all of the needs of the child. Children who become severely depressed or experience traumatic shock as a result of loss may require additional supports provided by professional counselors. Caregivers of children who have experienced loss should carefully consider the needs of their children as well as their personal limitations in meeting those needs.

If a child is inconsolable, contemplating suicide or exhibiting extreme changes in behavior, the caregiver should seek help from a community counseling center or a mental health professional. Expertise provided to children during this time may be necessary to facilitate healing and to address mental health issues that may result from loss and grief.

Although the death of a parent is indeed a significant event in the life of a child, caregivers can provide the supports needed to help children adapt to this life event. Caregivers that are responsive to and understanding of the needs of children during this critical time can make a significant difference in how children develop emotionally over the long-term.

While the loss of a parent will be difficult for the child, it is possible through the grieving process to eventually move forward toward resolution and a brighter future for the family.

Contributed by Dr. Michael Clatch

Dr. Clatch practices at the Courage to Connect Therapeutic Center, 2400 Ravine Way, Suite 600, Glenview. For more information, call 847-347-5757 or visit