I wanted to write this post for anyone going through this right now, in the hope that it might be some little help. Losing a parent can have a life altering impact on a small child and it is so hard to know how to make things better for them. I want to share my own experience, from my perspective as a child, to give a tiny insight into how children feel when their lives are turned upside down by losing one of the most important people in their lives.
When I was six years old, my father went to work and never came home. He was killed in a motorcycle accident. There were no other vehicles involved and it was a straight road on a dry day, no one really knows what happened. He passed away on the same night and I was woken up in the morning by my mother sitting on my bed. She told me that Daddy had been in an accident and he wasn’t coming back and did I know what that meant. I knew what that meant. I knew Daddy had gone and I would never see him again, I cried and cried. This is such a vivid memory, I can still feel the atmosphere and it makes my heart pump fast when I recall it. My Grandmother was there too, my father’s mother, and I had never seen her cry before. She didn’t hug me or anything, she just seemed dazed and distant. I didn’t like it.
The days that followed were filled with people coming to our house and crying. People I hardly knew just picking me up and holding me tight with tears in their eyes. I remember this feeling of being so small and looking up at all of these sad giants and wondering if things could ever be normal again. A young vicar came by and sat and talked with us for while. My brother was only four years old and I don’t really think he knew much of what was happening. I remember the vicar telling me that my Daddy’s body was just a shell and that it wasn’t really him any more. In my childish mind I literally imagined my fathers body like a fragile egg shell with nothing inside. He told me that my Daddy had gone to live somewhere else and that he didn’t need his body any more. It was all just so much for me to take in, I couldn’t accept that he was gone. How could he just go to work and just disappear?
I didn’t go to the funeral, which I was angry about for a long time. I wished I had been able to go and say goodbye and get some kind of end to the story. For a long time into adulthood I held on to being upset about this, but then I had children of my own and I understood. I know that it was best for me not to go, it would have been too traumatising for me and for the adults around me. I also went back to school very quickly after it happened, which I do also understand with hind sight. I needed some normality and school gave me that. There was one instance of a little girl saying to me in a little girl kind of a way ‘did your dad die?’ I didn’t really know how to respond. I didn’t cry or anything, I just distinctly felt like I didn’t want to talk to her about it. An older girl who overheard swept me away and told the quizzer not to say things like that.
I didn’t really think that life could go on, but it did. I was sad on and off but not every minute. I got sad when I sat on my Daddy’s bed, gazing into his wardrobe and realising that he wouldn’t be wearing any of his clothes any more. Apparently I used to cry out for him in my sleep, but thankfully I have no memory of this. I couldn’t bear it when another man moved in and tried to take his place. So many things that made me upset or angry but that were utterly out of my control.
It wasn’t until I started getting older, probably into my mid teens, that I properly grieved for my Dad. I began to talk about it and face up to this anger and deep sadness inside me. I was angry at my Dad for leaving me, as irrational as that sounds. I was sad because I was realising that he would miss my wedding and my kids and all of those mile stones where you need your parents. It’s still hard now, so hard. I miss him and I think about him and I talk to him, I don’t think that will ever change.
It is so difficult as an adult to imagine what it feels like for a child to go through such a traumatic experience. I look at families who lose a parent and my heart aches for the children. I know how they feel and how they are going to feel. I know that they don’t fully understand, but at the same time they soak up everything and their hearts hurt.I have a few insights into how to best help a child who goes through loss.
- Adults need to just love children during these times. Just love them and hold them and make sure they know they are safe.
- Talk to them about the person they’ve lost, children need to keep them alive. This can be especially true if the death is sudden, as it was for me. I needed to know that he was a real person and that he did actually exist, otherwise it all becomes like a dream.
- Keep photographs around the house of the person that has died. This was something that didn’t happen for me and it almost drove into me even more the idea that he never really existed at all.
- Give the child a keepsake belonging to the person they’ve lost. I had a handkerchief belonging to my Dad and it just meant the world to me. To hold something in my hands that he had touched just meant everything to me. It made me feel close to him and like I had a little piece of him that I could keep with me. I also have his wedding ring and I love, even now, putting it on my finger and imagining it on his.
- Don’t tell children not to cry. I remember this happening to me and it made me feel so confused. I wanted to cry, I was sad. Things really are as simplistic as that to a child, don’t try and tell them to hide how they feel. It is so much healthier for them to express themselves and they should be encouraged to do that.
- Don’t be afraid to tell children details if they ask for them. I wanted to know what injuries my Dad had and precisely how he died. I wanted to know if he was on a life support machine and if he was ever conscious after the accident. Children want to understand why something has happened and the events that lead up to it.
As an adult, all of these things are difficult to do. I cannot even begin to imagine what it was like for my mother to go through what she went through. Now that I have two small children and I am roughly the same age my parents where when this happened, it is all the more horrifying for me to imagine what it was like. Having said that, as the adult you sometimes need to put to own grief to one side for the sake of your kids. If they want to talk about it but you don’t, talk about it anyway. If they are upset and you feel like you just need to shut yourself away, please don’t. These experiences can dramatically alter how children cope with loss as a child and throughout their entire adult lives.
My heart truly does ache for anyone who has lost someone, whether it was years ago or last week. It is one of the hardest things we have to deal with in life, losing someone we love so incredibly. It is hard to imagine how we can carry on and live but we can and we do. My experiences have made me strong, still sad, but strong.