Last Updated: Friday - 09/24/2010
Week of November 1, 1999
The death of a parent
Children grieve as intensely as adults over the loss of a loved one
By LELLA BLUMER
Special to the WCR
Children grieve as intensely, as deeply and as long as adults do over the death of a parent. But children are good at hiding their feelings of grief, says Olga Buma, a social worker at Edmonton's Misericordia Hospital.
"They also grieve intermittently, so they could be sad one moment and laughing the next, which may give the impression they don't hurt as much as adults."
"Children of any age will gauge how they behave by what they think is expected of them in the family," Buma adds. She recalls a father who came to see her with his two children after his wife died from injuries received in an accident.
During the session, whenever the father started to cry, his four-year-old child would jump up on the coffee table, distracting the father's attention long enough to stop him from crying.
"We often think it's the parents who try to protect their children from pain, but it works both ways.
"A child will see their mother crying and think 'I've got to be strong for her,' or they'll take on the role of a clown and try to cheer everyone up; whatever they are sensing they should do for the family."
Because the grief they feel is so intense, children who lose a parent may not be physically ready to talk about their feelings for years afterward, Buma says.
Adeline Blumer recalls the journeys each of her four children made after her husband Al died of leukemia 10 years ago.
She says although the family has always been open and able to express their feelings, and had time to prepare for his death, there was still a lot of pain and anger to work through.
Jonathan, 13 at the time, has vivid memories of building a tree house with his dad, and jumping in piles of newly-raked leaves with him. For years after Al's death, Jonathan says, he was jealous of "other kids who had opportunities I never had" to learn things from their fathers.
Angie, then 11, also went through difficult times, until she found a renewed faith life in the last year of high school. She is now married and living in New York.
The two younger children, Esther, who was 8, and Joel, 6, have less vivid memories of their father and his death, but both have felt the pain of his loss.
Esther remembers in Grade 4 when she had to build a machine for a science project and "all the other girls said they would get their dads to do it for them."
"I just got so angry. I was angry at God because I didn't have a dad to make my machine for me."
But like her sister, Esther feels she can now offer comfort to those of her friends who are experiencing feelings of loss. In fact, when she travelled to Mexico on a mission last year, she found she could relate to the children in the orphanage she visited better than her friends could "because I felt like one of them."
For Joel, his father's presence was missed most often on special occasions, like father-son outings.
"I had a lot of older role models and Mom always made sure I had someone to go with. But it wasn't the same."
Through the hard times, and the good times, of the past 10 years, Adeline credits the family's faith life and the support they received from family and friends for keeping them together.
"For us, our faith life helped, because we believe life is a gift from God, and no life is taken away for no purpose.
"We know that we have a heavenly Father, and even though the biological person who was your father on earth is gone, we still have someone looking after us. And we know there is no point so low that God is not there holding you up, and no point so high that he is not there celebrating with you."
That doesn't mean she hasn't felt angry at God sometimes, she adds.
"When you're brought up to trust God, you think that if you do the right thing, . . . things will work out."
But after a traumatic experience "you realize it will take time to get back the trust in God you once had."
That's a prevalent feeling among people who have lost someone close to them, says Linda Neufeld, a chaplain at Misericordia Hospital. In the support groups Buma runs for those who have lost a spouse or a parent, Neufeld often hears questions like "Is God punishing me for something?" "Do I deserve this?" and "Is it all right to be angry with God?"
Neufeld says she focuses on helping those people express their pain honestly. The next step is to move beyond it.
"For everyone, finding meaning in life is important. We help them learn . . . to say that even though I have lost someone very close to me, I can still love those who are around me."
Buma agrees. "The hope we give our people is that you can accommodate your grief; you can move from being totally consumed with grief to the point where your life can have meaning, and you can be happy again."
There is no point where a person "gets over" grief, but gradually, you begin to feel better, she says, adding "I'm not sure whether we let grief go, or if it's grief letting us go."