December 18, 2017
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Books by Judy Strong

A Child's Grief
A Child's Grief:
Surviving the Death
of a Parent

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No Time to Grieve
No Time to Grieve
A Survivor's Guide to
Loss and Healing

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Excerpt from Chapter One, A Child’s Grief: Surviving the Death of a Parent, by Judy Strong

Imagine a usually vivacious, inquisitive boy named Johnny. Johnny lost his father last week. The car in which his father was riding was struck head on by a drunk driver. Seven-year old Johnny can’t understand what has happened. He only knows that his mother is very sad and Daddy won’t be coming home.

The house has been filled with people since that awful day. Neighbors come with hot dishes and cakes, family members he hasn’t seen since Christmas are arriving by car or airplane, and Mommy’s best friends have been in and out all week. Everyone is crying.

Johnny can’t cry. His stomach feels queasy but the tears won’t come. Sometimes his head feels like a block of wood, and his breath comes in little sighs. Mommy tells him it’s all right to cry, but he can’t.

Johnny’s mother finds it difficult to talk about the accident. Tears stream down her face and her hands open and close as she struggles to comfort her child. Embracing him, she holds him tightly, pressing his face against her body, until he suddenly leans backward and gulps in a breath of air.

“I can’t breathe,” he cries.

“Sometimes I can’t either,” his mother admits.

Snuggling together, they whisper about silly things, the day’s events and whether to have hot dogs or pizza for supper. The need for warmth wins out over their hunger pangs, and they cuddle awhile longer, heads together, stroking one another’s hands and face. Johnny still doesn’t understand why his father died.

How do we understand the pain a child feels when a parent dies? How do we help? Generally, it was thought that children, especially young children, couldn’t understand-and, therefore, didn’t experience-the pain of death and loss. Children’s needs were largely glossed over, dismissed with a simple, “You’ll get over it. Soon you won’t even remember your mother/father any more.” Unfortunately, this simply isn’t so.

The first few weeks are a blur for Johnny. He can’t seem to get his mind to focus on what has happened. Everything he knew and understood about life is either gone or so distorted that it is unrecognizable to him. People have stopped coming, Mom is back at work every afternoon, and Grandma and Grandpa try to make each day “normal” and pleasant. But Johnny knows everything has changed. One person is missing, someone who will never be back, and he can’t stop wondering how that can be. How can people just disappear? How can they go away and leave us?

For a child like Johnny, the fact of death is difficult to grasp, but the consequences on his life are painfully real. His mother has to look for a better job. Her part-time work won’t begin to make up for the loss of his father’s income. Grandma and Grandpa, two of his favorite people, will stay for a while, “until things settle down,” but soon they’ll return to their home eight hundred miles away. He’ll miss them. Talking on the phone isn’t the same as sitting on a lap, snuggling together and reading a book. Why did Daddy leave?

Responding to this and other hard questions will take thought and consistent answers. An initial discussion should simply include telling the child what has happened. It should also assure the child of who will take care of him or her. Physical contact and continual assurance will begin to build a foundation of security that the child so desperately needs.

Talking about what has happened to us, and how we feel is difficult for everyone. As the child begins to respond, he or she may begin questioning the meaning of death in general and expressing his own feelings in particular.

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