Helping Children When A Family Member Has Cancer: When A Child Has Lost A Parent

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Helping Children When a Family Member Has Cancer: When a Child Has Lost a Parent

This is one of six documents covering topics to help children when someone in the family has cancer. The others cover information on: diagnosis, treatment, recurrence or progressive illness, terminal illness, and psychosocial support services. Even though this information is directed mainly toward adults who are helping children who have lost a parent, it can apply to the loss of any adult who was an important part of the child’s life. For more information on these and other topics, go to the “To Learn More” section.

Grief can look different in a child.

When a person loses someone who is important to them, grieving is natural and expected. Over time, it can allow the person to accept and understand their loss. Grieving involves many different emotions over time, all of which help the person come to terms with the loss of a loved one. But in children, grief can take longer. And it’s often worked through on different levels as the child matures.

Children of all ages go through grief, sadness, and despair after the loss of a parent to cancer, even though the process might look different from that in adults. Children often will feel sad or show other emotions for a short time, then go back to their usual activities or go play with friends. Adults might mistakenly think that the child has already gotten over it, or that the child doesn’t fully understand the loss. But children grieve in their own ways, often showing emotion for awhile then going back to more everyday things. This can go on for years after the death.

If the parent had a long and difficult battle with cancer, sometimes the child may seem less anxious after the death than before. It’s hard having a very sick parent, and the child may be able to settle into a quieter routine while handling their grief. But caregivers need to keep checking in with the child—listen to concerns and find out if the child has questions. This can be hard at times, because children often respond in ways that may make them seem unconcerned, callous, or indifferent. It helps to remember that children feel the pain of loss, but are not able to express it the same way that adults do. It can take a long time to adapt to losing a parent.

Sometimes emotional symptoms can become more severe and interfere with the child’s or the family’s life. About 1 in 5 children have serious emotional symptoms a year or more after the parent’s death. A 2011 study showed that, 2 months after losing a parent, 1 in 4 children were depressed. In contrast, other studies have shown a much lower risk of serious problems such as depression in children who didn’t have emotional or behavioral problems or other serious family problems before the parent’s death. And one study suggested that some children have a delayed response to the death and an increase in emotional problems 2 years after the death. It’s uncertain how long this period of adjustment might last after the loss of a parent, and it varies from child to child.

Mourning and bereavement

Bereavement is what a person goes through when someone close to them dies. It’s the state of having suffered a loss.

Mourning is an outward expression of loss and grief. Mourning includes rituals and formal actions like funerals, memorial services, prayers, wearing certain colors or symbolic clothing, and many other customs that depend on culture, religion, and personal preferences. These rituals are usually set up by adults, but they can also be helpful to a bereaved child if the child wants to be included in them.

Bereavement and mourning are both part of the normal grieving process.

Last Medical Review: 08/07/2012
Last Revised: 08/07/2012