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Kids Losing a Parent: When Mom or Dad Dies

Death can leave children scared and scarred. But with support of family, friends and community, they can survive and thrive, learning a resiliency they never knew they had.

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Channeling grief through play

At Ele's Place, the staff uses activities to help the kids express and cope with their emotions. Most activities for the youngest children involve heavy use of visuals representing facial expressions.

"We have a bunch of beach balls with faces," says Wendy Brightman, managing director of Ele's Place in Ann Arbor. "We ask the children to point to the ball with the expression they are feeling that day – happy, lonely, etc.

"Young children speak about their feelings differently. For these little ones, grief is often expressed in play."

Age-appropriate play including arts and crafts are at the center of many of Ele's Place group activities.

For example, children in the 6- to 8-year age group make a scream box – a shoebox stuffed with a paper towel roll and filled with cotton into which they can scream as loud as they want – the sound is muffled.

"The kids love it," Kausch notes. "Often the kids will decorate it to represent the person who died or other things they love. The box lets them scream all they want. It's a coping tool."

At SandCastles, children cycle through what is known as the "volcano room." It is in this space that the kids are encouraged to release pent-up feelings by unleashing a mean uppercut on an unsuspecting punching bag or tearing through the pages of any one of the piles of phone books at the ready.

Casey Papp has made several heart-shaped memory boxes during group activities at SandCastles. Each memory box she has made contains a slit in the top.

"I put cards in there with good thoughts," she explains. "When I am having a bad day, I pull one out and read it."

More recently, Casey has also taken up a different craft-focused hobby as part of her grief journey, one that her mom too enjoyed: scrapbooking.

"I'm making a scrapbook of my mom," she notes. "I went to all my aunts, uncles and friends of my mom asking for photos."

Grieving as a teen

Among teens who have lost a parent, the challenges associated with grief are sometimes very different.

"High schoolers tend to think they have it all figured out, but their behavior often indicates otherwise," Brightman says. "You'll see it in their sleep patterns, truancy and slipping grades."

At Ele's Place, the activities for teens may take the form of crafts like collage making, but more often the teens end up in group discussion.

"Generally teens just want to talk," Brightman says. "Sometimes their surviving parent is lost in his or her own grief and (isn't) as in tune with the details of their teenager's life at school or with friends. The kids help fill that void and move each other forward."

Nielsen has worked with many teens in the 15 years since SandCastles first opened its doors. She has observed a common thread in what teens wish adults knew about their grief.

"Repeatedly I hear them say that being a grieving teen and trying to do well in school is really challenging," she notes. "Their request is that adults just be gentler with them. They're doing the best they can. They may not get all As, but they're grieving."

Likewise, teens commonly are hesitant to share their grief with the surviving parent.

"They want to protect their mom or dad who is already so sad," Nielsen notes. "That is where another adult resource like an aunt or uncle can be really crucial. Parents should let their child know if they don't want to come to them, that Aunt Holly or Uncle Jim is available at any time."

Will I lose you, too?

With death now a very real part of a grieving child's life, concern, worry and fear of losing his or her surviving parent or guardian is a common point of anxiety for the already emotionally burdened child.

More than once, Austin has had the conversation with William and Quinn about who would care for them and where they would live if something should happen to her.

"Ele's Place counseled me to have a plan around this and to honestly talk about it with my boys," Austin recalls. "I've told the boys, 'If something happens to me, you would live here in our house with Aunt Kathy. You will always be with someone who loves you.' I emphasize to them that I am going to take care of myself. Unlike their dad, I am not going to choose to die."

The SandCastles philosophy of candor on this topic is similar.

"The parent or guardian of a grieving child needs to have the 'what if?' conversation with their child," Nielsen advises. "This is something any parent can do, even if both mom and dad are alive. The more you can keep your child informed, the better.

"We believe in telling the truth even if circumstances are really bad, as with suicide," she continues. "If you tell the child their mom or dad had a heart attack when they really committed suicide, when they find out the truth at a later time, they will start grieving all over again. Be honest at a developmentally appropriate level."

Six months after Tamia Culberson's mother died, her grandmother and guardian was diagnosed with breast cancer for the second time. Terri Culberson used the opportunity to once again convey to her granddaughter that Tamia would always be in the care of those who loved her, even if that wouldn't be either of the two people who loved her most – mom or grandma.

"I told her that all these people in her life would be there to make sure she was safe and protected," Culberson recalls. "Tamia knows she will always be loved and cared for."

It takes a village

While surviving parents or guardians should play a primary role in communicating a death and its impact to their child, other family, friends and community members can and should play an integral role in helping a grieving child.

Casey Papp's three aunts on her mom's side and two aunts on her dad's have been a blessing to their niece and her father.

"I call myself the girl with many mothers," notes Casey whose aunts are a much-needed outlet for girl talk. "They help with stuff my dad can't answer."

Four times a year Casey's "many mothers" take inventory of her closet noting what she needs before hitting the mall with Casey in tow.

Tamia and Terri Culberson also lean heavily on Tamia's aunts.

"Tamia's aunts visit four or five days out of the week and do a lot of the young stuff with her, like skating and going to the park," Terri explains. "Tamia has lots of mother figures. But even so, no one will ever take the place of her mom."

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