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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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For Casey Papp, support comes from those outside her family as well as from those within. Her teacher at the time her mother died, Alana Vizachero, was one among many to provide extra attention and care. When the first Mother's Day after Carole Papp died rolled around, Mrs. Vizachero asked Casey if she wanted to make the craft the other students were assembling for their mothers or would she rather sit out.

"Mrs. Vizachero was so kind," Casey recalls. "When I told her I didn't want to make the Mother's Day project, she had me join her making copies and helping with other tasks while the rest of the class worked on the project with another teacher."

It was her much-admired fourth grade teacher who also made her the teal (for ovarian cancer) bracelet with the word "Hope" inscribed on it that she cherishes to this day.

"That bracelet didn't leave my wrist for a long time," Casey says. "I don't think Mrs. Vizachero realizes how much she means to me."

The community at large plays an important role in helping a grieving child. In fact, community education and awareness is a pillar of the SandCastles mission.

"We see the grieving child once every other week," Nielsen notes. "But he or she is seeing their teachers, friends and neighbors every day. Grief work is not in a teacher or doctor's curriculum. Grief is everywhere, and it's not hard to help a grieving child."

To that end, Nielsen recommends family, friends, neighbors, teachers and school counselors listen first and foremost.

"You don't have to have answers or a fix for the problem," she says. "Just listen."

In addition, Nielsen advises people to be available to grieving families at any time for anything and to be non-judgmental.

"Everyone's experience is unique," she notes. "If the situation gets bad, reach out for help."

Keeping the memories alive

At significant milestones in her life, Casey will receive a letter from her mother. Before she died, Carole wrote letters for her daughter marking her entrance into middle school, her 16th birthday, her high school graduation, her wedding day and the day she welcomes a child of her own.

"I love the letters," Casey says. "They're helpful. They also include advice from my mom about life in general, about being nice to people."

Each year on Carole's birthday, Casey and her dad put flowers on Carole's grave. And each night Casey talks to her mom.

"I believe in my mind, I can still hear her talking to me," says the sixth grader.

To ensure Tamia Culberson knows the mom she barely remembers, Terri, her two other daughters, Tamia's grandfather and scores of extended family members make a point to regularly talk about LaChandra.

Family members tell Tamia about her mom's love of books, a passion the now 9-year-old has in common with her mom.

"She will know her mom," says Terri.

At Ele's Place, an annual balloon launch provides grieving children and their family members an opportunity to pen a message to their deceased loved one and launch it via a helium-filled balloon into the air.

Last year, 400 kids and their parents participated in Ele's Place's balloon launch, an event that has come to mean so much to its participants.

"I still remember one boy in our 9- to 11-year-old age group asked me if his dad would know to turn the card tied to his balloon over, as he had written a note to him on both the front and back sides," Brightman recalls. "Kids are so literal. You could tell this meant a lot to him."

On the anniversary of her husband's death, Erin Austin takes her boys out of school to lay flowers on their father's grave.

"I make it a day of remembrance, and we honor the things that Jeff liked to do," she notes. "The boys each pick an activity that their dad would have enjoyed."

A common worry among grieving children is that they will forget their deceased parent. This is particularly true for children who lost their mom or dad early in childhood.

Physical mementos can play a healing and comforting role to a grieving child, whether a mother's favorite locket, a photo of dad or a piece of clothing.

Casey Papp keeps close to her the remnants of the blue bandana her mom wore after chemo took her hair.

"By the end of her life, that bandana was almost torn apart," Casey recalls. "She'd give it to me. I'd give it back to her. We'd go back and forth with it. She gave it to me one final time on the last day of her life. I have kept in my room ever since."

Moving forward

Thanks to their faith, family support and SandCastles, Terri and Tamia Culberson have adjusted to their new normal. For Terri that means dual roles as mother and grandmother.

"God has given me a second chance to be a mother all over again," Culberson reflects. "My daughter and I were so close. She shared her thoughts and what she wanted for Tamia. I thank God I was a good listener. I am able to incorporate what LaChandra wanted for her daughter into her life."

While children who have lost a parent face many challenges their peers will not, they may develop extra resilience as a result. Research conducted by Comfort Zone Camp – the nation's largest bereavement camp for children who have experienced the loss of a parent, sibling or primary caregiver – reveals that 81 percent of those surveyed who lost a parent as a child say they are equally or more resilient than most adults. Fifty-nine percent think they became stronger as a result of their loss.

"Right after my mom died, my grades fell," Casey Papp recalls. "But now I am fighting back. Having gone through this, I want to be a bereavement counselor when I grow up, so I can help other kids."

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