How can you help a child who has lost a parent?

When a child loses a parent, he or she goes through the same stages of grief that an adult goes through: shock and numbness, grief and depression, an emotional distancing from the loss and finally adapting to the loss. Although the stages are the same in children as in adults, children often display their feelings differently. Children may react with denial, anger toward the deceased parent, or guilt. Kids under age three don't understand the finality of death but they do feel the loss. Toddlers may actually be more affected by changes in routine than by the loss of the parent.

Explaining the death in simple terms that they can understand is important in helping children cope. Euphemisms only add to confusion, such as kids wondering, "If we lost Mommy, why aren't we looking for her," or "If I go to sleep, will I die too?" Saying, "She died because she was sick," may scare them into thinking they will die the next time they get sick. Be clear and direct with your explanations.

When a parent dies, children need reassurance and lots of attention and affection. They may fear the loss of other family members. Sticking to their routines and schedules as much as possible will help them feel secure. So will enforcing rules. Sometimes adults make the mistake of being lax with rules when children are in a difficult situation, but this is actually unsettling for them.

Keep an eye out for depression in children who have lost a parent. Signs may include the development of minor illnesses like intestinal upsets or colds, playing less, or becoming clingy and dependent. These children need to feel secure and to feel they have a safe place to go to talk about their fears with someone who is open to discussing this subject with them.