How the Death of a Parent Affects a Child
An estimated 1.5 million US children lose one or both parents by the age of 15.
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Nicki Fuchs got her first period at her mother’s funeral when she was 11. A few days before, on Valentine’s Day, her family had found her 34-year-old mom, Rachel, dead with no explanation. At the time, Rachel worked at a veterinary clinic and lived with Nicki’s stepdad and Nicki in California. Then suddenly they were burying her and Fuchs was bleeding.
“I had to become a woman that day. That was a pretty painful thing for a very long time, getting that period,” Fuchs says. “From February until June, I lied about having a period every month because I was in denial about life. I just shut down.”
After her mom’s death, Nicki’s biological dad gained full custody of her, and she had to move from California, where she had a tight-knit, supportive group of friends who were there when her mother died, to Maryland with her dad. There, she says she had to learn how to live a new life. She felt like her dad and his wife wanted her to forget what had happened.
For two years, she didn’t believe her mom was dead. She thought maybe her mom was playing a game or testing her. “Because I was so young, I didn’t get to grieve her. I just had to keep living life, go through school, and pretend like everything was okay,” says Fuchs. “I can’t tell you how many times my stepparents and dad asked, ‘how are you not over it?’”
Although grief is a normal human experience that most people adapt to over time, losing a parent when a child is young is a significant stressor that requires extra support, says Dan Wolfson, a clinical psychologist specializing in grief and loss. Wolfson speaks from years of personal and professional experience. His mom died from breast cancer when he was 18, and he’s the clinical director of Experience Camps for Grieving Children and a researcher at Columbia University's Center for Complicated Grief.
“Having the loss of a parent disrupts our foundation—our sense of security and safety, having secure attachment, having this parent provide everything that parents provide for us. That all gets blown to pieces when we lose a parent,” Wolfson says.
An estimated 1.5 million US children lose one or both parents by the age of 15, comprising about five percent of the population. In younger children, grief often manifests in anxiety. Because children rely on their parents to meet their basic needs, kids who have lost a parent may ask who will pick them up from school or make dinner. They sometimes worry about their surviving parent dying, too.
The death of a parent often leads to other losses, too, such as having to move, switch schools, or live with a different parent, like Fuchs experienced. Because the family’s financial situation may change if the deceased parent worked, teens may have to get a job to help support the family or watch younger siblings. If the parents were together at the time of death or maintained a strong bond after ending their relationship, the surviving parent may also be grieving deeply, which can impact their ability to support their children.
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As teens, Wolfson says kids’ grief can begin to look more like depression or low self-esteem. Having a parent die at a young age is a life-altering experience that can make them feel different from their peers. Feeling socially isolated can hurt kids’ self-esteem, which can put them at risk for anxiety, depression, and substance abuse. Fuchs says that almost 20 years after Rachel’s death, she still felt out of place up until recently.
In adolescence, kids also typically become more independent and less affectionate with their parents as they develop their own identities. If a parent dies during this healthy individuation process, their teenager may feel guilty about it.
A 2000 Journal of Child Psychology and Psychiatry and Allied Disciplines study found that about 1 out of every 5 children who’ve lost a parent will develop a psychiatric disorder. Childhood bereavement research also suggests that having a parent who died due to suicide, an accident, or another sudden cause may further increase the risk for major depression and post-traumatic stress disorder.
But Wolfson is quick to emphasize that with the right kinds of support, children and teens can adapt, learn to express their grief in healthy ways, and thrive. A parent’s death is going to have psychological and physical impacts on a child, but those impacts can often be overcome with time and help.
“I feel like I’ve been able to witness for myself and children I’ve worked with real hardships, real trauma, real challenges. I’ve been able to see their individual capacity to adapt and overcome and lead fulfilling, positive lives,” Wolfson says. “I really believe in human potential to overcome challenges that life throws at us.”
After a parent dies, Wolfson says children immediately feel that their world is unsafe, so families need to provide them with structure and assurances that their needs will be met. To help build those structures, Wolfson tells surviving parents and guardians, “don’t parent alone.” He recommends drawing on community resources, like support groups and camps, such as the Experience Camps where he works. He says that encouraging bereaved children to connect with other kids is one of the best things parents and guardians can do, as well as telling stories about the deceased parent and helping the child build a redefined relationship with them.
As time passes, it’s important for children to know that it’s okay to say that something sad and hard has happened to them, but they can also go on to have a positive life. In his 2013 book David and Goliath: Underdogs, Misfits, and the Art of Battling Giants, journalist Malcolm Gladwell details the work of psychologist Marvin Eisenstadt, who found that from a selection of 573 famous or high-achieving individuals, a quarter had parents who passed away before they were 10. Almost 35 percent had lost parents by the age of 15, and 45 percent by the time they were 20. Wolfson attributes this phenomenon to the power of human resilience.
“I don’t think I would say, ‘it’s a good thing to have your parent die,’ but what I would say is that it teaches people from a younger age that I can have shit happen to me, I can have really challenging things happen in my life, and I’m able to deal with that,” Wolfson says.
In college, Fuchs says she binge-drank and was obsessed with sex. She dyed her brown hair blonde like Rachel’s hair because she felt like she needed to look like her mom so she wouldn’t forget her. It wasn’t until Fuchs was in graduate school that she says she felt safe enough to process her mother’s death.
Yet Fuchs’ desire to know what killed her mom led her down a path where she’s found fulfillment. As a biology major, she took pharmacology class where she had to write a paper on a drug of her choice, so she looked up her mom’s toxicology report and read about the drug combination found in her system. That’s how she learned that her mom probably acquired at least one of the drugs from her job at the veterinary clinic. Now a scientist and comedian, Fuchs says Rachel’s death sparked two of her greatest passions.
“I don’t think I would have become a drug scientist if I wasn’t curious about what happened to her,” Fuchs says. “I think my job is really cool and what I do everyday and how I make money is really exciting. I don’t think I’d be able to do stand-up comedy without having gone that low to want to show people that laughing is the cure for everything.”
Fuchs says there are still times when she wishes her mom were alive. Other times, she thinks that if Rachel were here, Fuchs wouldn’t be leading the life she has.
In August 2016, Fuchs went on a retreat for women who were 21 or younger when their mothers died. Led by Hope Edelman, author of Motherless Daughters: The Legacy of Loss, and a grief counselor, the retreat allowed Fuchs to reflect on losing her mom through writing and sharing exercises and spending time with other women who experienced the same loss. Fuchs says she cried a lot. The retreat showed her that she wasn’t alone.
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