The death of a loved one is particularly difficult. For children especially, the adjustment to the death of “Mom”, “Dad”, “Papa”, “Abuela” or any primary attachment figure can affect them on many levels. Obviously, the principal loss may be the relationship itself, but we should not forget all of the other areas of life that are impacted by a death. We call these, “secondary losses” and they can be equally significant in the experience of grieving children.
Imagine for a moment that Johnny’s father has died. Johnny is only 5 years old and we may mistakenly assume that his attachment to his father is not firmly established or as strong as that of an older sibling. Even a young child can miss the bond developed with a significant caregiver. Often however, it is the “secondary” loss issues that they respond to most strongly.
In our example, dad may have been the primary breadwinner, and now mom feels pressure to return to work and support the household. She is no longer as readily available to be with Johnny, may need to limit participation in school functions, or may simply not be able to be home for him when he first gets out of school. Johnny may feel that he has also lost a little of her since his dad died. Perhaps, both parents worked and now the family needs to downsize as an adjustment to the loss of income. Johnny needs to give away his dog, may have to change schools, or even lose the friends he was familiar with at their neighborhood park. While these changes are secondary to the death itself, they do have an impact on Johnny’s sense of support, safety, and identity. It might be as simple as not keeping the same schedule, having different foods in the house or new faces involved in Johnny’s daily routine that throw him off a bit. All these secondary losses can bring a response from Johnny that reflects his grief.
So what now?
It would be fair to say that the worst has already taken place. The death has already occurred. It is difficult to adjust, and change is sometimes scary for kids, but we are all capable of resilience. Support and consistency in the adjustment is most helpful.
Remember that children seek comfort, consistency and safety after loss. Changes in their environment, schedule, and support system can all contribute to their sense of insecurity. Paying attention to “secondary” changes can help us understand the issues behind some of their feelings and behaviors.
If you, or someone you know, have experienced the death of a loved one, the Children’s Bereavement Center offers support. FREE
Peer Support Groups are available for kids, teens, young adults and their families in Miami-Dade and Broward. Contact (305) 668-4902 to register or find more information at www.childbereavement.org.