Tuesday, August 16, 2016


We were deeply saddened recently to hear about the drowning death of a good friend who had gone with his young family overseas to do missionary work. John and Sue had only been there for a year when John was caught in a rip off the coast while swimming. I can’t begin to imagine what a shock it was to lose a dear husband and father of two boys. He was only 54 years of age.


It might be death through accident or illness, departure from the home through divorce or military service, incarceration or a job away from home. How do kids deal with the complete loss of a parent or an absent parent over a sustained period of time? What changes family dynamics with the departure of a parent?

According to Maslow’s hierarchy of needs, a person requires the following to be met for physical, emotional piece of mind and maturity. Without the basics being met there is very little hope of the higher needs being fully actualized. Each level relies on the one below.

1. Physiological needs - food, water, shelter, warmth and rest.

2. Security and safety.

3. The sense of belonging and love - intimate relationships and friends.

4. Esteem needs - prestige and the feeling of accomplishment.

5. Self actualization - achieving one’s full potential, including creative activities.


When a parent dies there comes with it the immediate fear of how the family will manage. If it is the financial provider who has departed, then the threat of coping begins at level one. When only one parent is left to fulfill the roles of both mother and father, added to the grief process, the family will initially need outside support to keep the family physically and emotionally afloat. If this is a single parent home and that parent is no longer there, the children become extremely fearful of what will become of them and will require much support, supervision and assurance that they will survive this catastrophe and hopefully remain together.


There are several important points I wish to make regarding the children.

Point 1: The oldest child of a bereft family should not be expected to take over the ‘father’ or ‘mother’ role now their parent is gone. They are in the grieving process themselves and do not need to hear, “You have to step up and be the father (mother) of the house now!” There is no way they can be expected to take over this role, being totally ill-equipped to have such a responsibility or burden put on their shoulders. After all, they are still children, trying to make sense of the world and their place in it especially now a parent is gone. Instead, if it is possible to find an adult male relative or friend to support the remaining parent, that is a much better solution. Often grieving children need expert counseling to help them adjust to life without their beloved parent.

Point 2: Now there is only one parent to run the home, the child should never be used as the parental support system. A child cannot cope, understand or be expected to solve adult issues. Find adult support systems and get professional help to better manage the situation and to help the children sift through their emotions and adjust to the family changes.
Point 3: Grieving children need to be able to express anger, anxiety and/or deep sorrow. They may be holding back for fear of upsetting their grieving parent. Journaling their emotions might also help them to crystalize their thoughts.

Children need love and assurance during this transition in their lives. It is important not to change too much too soon in rebuilding family life. If the departure came out of a toxic relationship, then professional help will be required to assist the family make the family environment peaceful again. The loss of a parent for any reason is a tragedy and children's emotions must be a priority, even if friends or family step into the breech for a short time until the family regains some semblance of order.

Extra resource: Julie Hayslett, Nashville, TN shared her thoughts on this subject also.

Written by Sally Burgess, Forefront Families

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