Helping Children When a Family Member Has Cancer: When a Child Has Lost a Parent
This is one of 6 pieces covering topics to help children when someone in the family has cancer. The others cover things like diagnosis, treatment, recurrence or progressive illness, terminal illness, and psychosocial support services. For more on these and other topics, go to the “To Learn More” section.
Even though this information is written for adults 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.
Grief can look different in a child.
When someone a child loves dies, grieving is natural and expected. Grief is a normal response to loss, and the process should be encouraged, not suppressed. A child’s future mental health depends upon them experiencing all aspects of normal grief.
Grieving involves many different emotions over time, all of which help the person come to terms with the loss of a loved one. Children grieve differently from adults, and each child is different too. Each phase of growth and development may bring up new aspects of the loss and the child may grieve over and over. This is true even for children who were infants when the family member died.
Children of all ages grieve after the loss of a parent to cancer, 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 spurts; moving back and forth between grieving and being interested in everyday things. This can go on for years after the death.
If the parent had a long and difficult battle with cancer, the child and others may have started grieving before the actual death. 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: 12/02/2014
Last Revised: 12/12/2014