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January 27, 2013

The loss of a parent

Reuel S. Amdur

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When my son Karl was ten, he embarked on a grand adventure. We took him out of school and let him go with his grandmother to visit Jerusalem. He had a great time, but on the way back his grandmother became very weak. He had to take charge of getting things like luggage taken care of. Then, when they got back, we learned that she was in the final stages of cancer. Not many months later, she died.

Before she passed on, we arranged with the hospital to let him see her one more time.  This hospital, like many others, waived the rule of no child visitors in such circumstances.  In the case of a parent, the need is at least as great.  When there is an open casket funeral, the child should be given the chance to see the body and say goodbye.  They need to mourn, just like grown-ups.

Some people think that children should be protected from knowing about death, but in fact they need to understand what is happening, in an age-appropriate way.  It is adults who are uncomfortable talking to children about the subject.  Young children in particular have vivid imaginations, and in the absence of knowing what is going on they can have confusing and even hurtful understandings. 

Take for example a case where a child in a fit of anger has said to a parent, “I wish you were dead!”  Young children often have the notion that they are all-powerful.  They may feel that a parent’s serious decline has something to do with their utterances and the fleeting feelings behind them. As a result, they may come out with remarks to try to undo the damage.  “I’ll be good.”  The mother or father needs to impress on the child that the illness has nothing to do with what the child has said or done.  “I know you will be good, but that has nothing to do with my illness.  It is all because I smoke too much.” 

The child’s concerns need to be addressed.  There should be a conversation with the son or daughter to make sure that there is understanding.  The child should not be left guessing, and beyond answering questions the mother or father needs to probe.  “Are you afraid that what I have might be something you could catch from me?”  In the case of a single parent, “Are you worried about where you will live?”

Where the dying parent is far away and it is not possible to visit, there is the old-fashioned post office and the modern up-to-date audio and video tapes.  If a child will be cared for by someone new, it helps if the child has the chance to get to know that person first.

In earlier times, life and death were matters that children saw in the home.  Our sanitized lives have to some extent shielded us from death, but it is a reality that children need to understand in their own way. 

There are concrete arrangements that should be taken care of.  A number of problems are smoothed out if a parent has provided a will.  Then there is the problem of where children will go.  If there is another parent in the picture, the answer will ordinarily be clear-cut.  If not, or if the other parent cannot take on the role, then there is the task of identifying the new parent or family.

Often the extended family can be the resource–grandparents, aunts and uncles, cousins, even close family friends.  In the absence of such persons, social agencies can be called upon for help.  There are a number of family agencies in New York, some based on a specific religious community and some non-sectarian.  

A dying mother or father continues to parent till consciousness fails.  Death is less hurtful when the final times are done right.  The parent dies knowing that the children have been given the opportunity to take part and grow with the experience.  Death is a cause for sadness, for adults and children.  It should not be the occasion for childhood fears, confusion, and guilt.

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