Needs of Grieving Children: To Be Understood
from Never the Same: Coming to Terms with the Death of a Parent
by Donna Schuurman
One interesting aspect that the Harvard Child Bereavement Study looked at was how accurately the parent perceived how the child was doing. In situations where the child's perception and the parent's perception were in synch, the child felt more understood and validated, even if both saw the child as having difficulties. If the parent's perception and the child's perception were at odds, the child tended to have more anxiety and other problems.
In my experience with families at The Dougy Center, it's not at all unusual for the children and their parents to misperceive each other. This may happen when parents don't tell the children the truth, and the children either intuit that they're being lied to or know the truth from others. A telling example is nine-year-old Samuel, whose father died of suicide in his car by inhaling the exhaust fumes. In a well-intentioned attempt to protect Samuel from this harsh reality, his mother told him his father had died in a car accident. Samuel knew from other children, as well as from overheard conversations among adults, that his father had killed himself. In one of his groups, he shared with the other children that his father had died by suicide, but asked them not to tell his mother. "She thinks he was in a car accident," he explained to them.
Often parents cannot accurately assess how their children are doing because they are understandably absorbed in their own grief and doing all they can just to get up each morning. It's also common that the family members "protect" each other by not bringing up difficult thoughts or feelings, sometimes because they simply don't know how, or when they do, a parent withdraws, cries, or reacts in a way the child finds uncomfortable.
When your parent died, did you feel that your surviving parent understood how you were doing? If so, you had a little added boost over those children who did not feel understood by their surviving parent. In the Harvard study, parents who reported greater depression, and who had experienced the sudden, unexpected death of their spouse, tended to be less accurate in perceiving how their children were fairing. Some of the consequences of feeling understood by the surviving parent among the population studied were less anxiety and greater trust in one's own feelings, resulting in a stronger sense of internal control. If you have the sense that your parent did not understand you, you may have carried more anxiety, less trust in your own feelings, and a greater sense that events happen to you rather than you having control over them.
*Donna Schuurman is the Executive Director of The Dougy Center, a children's grief support program in Portland, Oregon and the source of excellent resources on grief and loss.