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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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Local kids who have lost a parent: Tamia Culberson, 9, of Southfield; Casey Papp, 12, of Brownstown with her dad; Quinn and William Austin, 7 and 5, of Milan with their mom.
Photos by Kristen Hines

Editor's Note: This story appeared in the June 2012 print edition of Metro Parent. It is the second in a three-part serious entitled "Loss."

When it became clear that her four-and-a-half year battle with ovarian cancer was nearing its end, Carole Papp of Brownstown made the decision to record messages to her then 9-year-old daughter, Casey, so her only child could play back in the weeks, months and years that would follow her mother's death.

Now, two-and-a-half years after Carole took her last breath, her daughter can still hear the sweet and familiar sound of her mother's voice whenever she wants by playing back these recordings on her iPod.

"I have recordings of her singing Happy Birthday and simply saying good night," says 12-year-old Casey. "She even recorded herself reading my favorite book, The Berenstein Bears Forget Their Manners. I listen to them a lot."

It's rituals like this one that have helped Casey on her journey of grief following the death of her No. 1 fan.

According to the U.S. Census Bureau, Casey is among the one in 20 children under the age of 18 who will experience the death of a parent. In Michigan, that represents more than 117,000 grieving children.

While the grief experience for anyone of any age can seem insurmountable, it can be even more challenging for very young children who do not fully grasp the concept of death and for older children who may feel they now need to protect their surviving parent or guardian.

A place where they 'get it'

Helping children of any age journey through grief following the loss of a parent is the mission of SandCastles, a division of Henry Ford Hospice and an organization committed to free year-round family group support for children and their parent or guardian experiencing the loss of a loved one.

Grieving children and their parent or guardian are invited to meet bi-weekly at one of SandCastles' eight metro Detroit program sites for peer support among those who truly get it.

"We break up into individual groups based on age," explains Peggy Nielsen, manger of SandCastles. "Sitting in a group of other kids experiencing a similar loss normalizes what these kids are feeling. They realize they're not the only kid in the world grieving."

This realization presented an "aha moment" for 9-year-old Tamia Culberson of Southfield whose mom, LaChandra, died suddenly in December 2006 from a previously undetected arteriovenous malformation in her brain – when Tamia was only 4 years old. Tamia's grandmother and guardian, Terri Culberson, vividly remembers a breakthrough moment following Tamia's attendance at one of her first SandCastles sessions.

"In the car afterward, Tamia shared how excited she was to have found kids who had experienced a loss like she had," Culberson recalls. "Prior to that, she thought it had only happened to her. She was finally able to talk about her feelings."

With locations in Ann Arbor and Lansing, Ele's Place, like SandCastles, is a free grief support service for children and their parent or guardian. Surveys conducted by Ele's Place indicate that grieving children need support systems that can help them cope, begin to heal and prevent or stop behavioral problems.

"There is a lot of literature that grieving children are at risk for trouble in school, truancy, substance abuse, isolation and depression," says Leela Kausch, a social worker and volunteer coordinator at Ele's Place.

To combat this, Ele's Place presents a place of healing for the youngest of children through those well into young adulthood with the goal of supporting these grieving kids at risk.

"Our goal is to create an environment for kids to explore, not run away from, their feelings," Kausch explains. "Each child's situation is unique. We respond to each child individually, meeting them where they're at – whether the death of their parent was sudden or the result of illness or whether it was their mother, father or even both parents who passed."

The reality of death

Erin Austin's 5- and 7 1/2-year-old sons, William and Quinn, faced the reality of parental loss when their father Jeff took his life in February 2009. At such tender ages, William and Quinn struggled to grasp the finality of their father's death and to come to terms with their feelings.

"It took William longer to process the whole thing," recalls Erin, who lives with her boys in Milan. "He kind of understood, but he mostly cried because everyone else around him was crying. Quinn understood more and naturally was devastated."

In their guide to childhood grief, After a Loved one Dies – How Children Grieve, David J. Schonfeld, M.D., and Marcia Quackenbush note that children must understand four basic concepts about death in order to grieve fully and to come to terms with the loss: Death is irreversible; all life functions end completely at the time of death; everything that is alive eventually dies; and there are physical reasons someone dies.

Understanding these concepts is especially important for very young children who are developmentally concrete thinkers, says Nielsen.

"When we talk with children who have lost a loved one, we explain that the person was very, very, very sick and died; very, very, very old and died; or very, very, very hurt and died," Nielsen notes. "We use at least three verys. Otherwise, the child will get a paper cut and think he or she is going to die."

Likewise, the well-intended words of support often expressed by those trying to comfort a grieving child can have the reverse effect for the literal thinker. Hearing that mom or dad is in heaven watching over them can be confusing to a child who is simultaneously being told they won't be able to see each other again.

Research has shown that even infants grieve the loss of a parent and that no child is too young to be affected by the death of a loved one. And while children may grieve deeply, their outward displays of grief may come in waves. Children may feel like talking one moment and then turn to play or do schoolwork the next.

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