Child At Funeral

How the Death of a Parent Affects a Child


“Your grandparents will die when you’re, say, in college. If you’re lucky, your parents will live until you’re somewhere in your 50s or 60s, and your children will never die before you. That’s the deal.”

It was Phillip Roth, the prolific novelist and author of such works as American Pastoral (1997) and Portnoy’s Complaint (1969), who uttered these words to NPR’s Terri Gross in a recent Fresh Air interview. Roth himself died at the age of 85 just last month, leaving behind two ex-wives and no children or grandchildren. In his later works, he wrote sentimentally about his own parent’s deaths and how their loss shaped his life, even as an adult. Most people will experience the loss of their parents like Roth–with a sad acceptance of the inevitable; a representation of their own mortality. However for about five percent of the U.S population, this loss is experienced very differently.

The Affects of Loss

A recent article from Vice focuses on how the loss of a parent before the age of 15 affects an individual, both acutely and longitudinally. Rennicke & Associates’ Dan Wolfson, Psy.D gave the following insight to Vice’s Virgie Townsend: “Having the loss of a parent disrupts our foundation—our sense of security and safety, having secure attachment, having this parent provide everything that parents provide for us. That all gets blown to pieces when we lose a parent”.

Wolfson, who lost his own mother at the 18, is now a clinical psychologist who has dedicated his professional life to supporting others through their own experiences with grief and loss. As Townsend writes in her article, “Having a parent die at a young age is a life-altering experience that can cause [a child to] feel different from their peers. Feeling socially isolated can hurt kids’ self-esteem, which can put them at risk for anxiety, depression, and substance abuse.” Additionally, 20% of all children who lose a parent at an early age will go on to develop a psychiatric disorder, according to research from the Cambridge University Press.

A light at the end of the tunnel?

Despite these statistics, there is hope for children and teens who have lost parents or other primary caregivers. With proper support and guidance from surviving parents and guardians, kids can learn to accent their parent’s deaths and grieve in a healthy manner. Moreover, they can use the depth of emotion that their loss has provided them to become more empathetic and resilient individuals. Wolfson told Vice: “I don’t think I would say, ‘it’s a good thing to have your parent die,’ but what I would say is that it teaches people from a younger age that I can have shit happen to me, I can have really challenging things happen in my life, and I’m able to deal with that.”

In a chapter in his book, Essential Papers on Object Loss, entitled “Parent Loss and Genius” Marvin Eisendsadt writes: If the destructive elements and depressive features of the experience of bereavement are neutralized, then a creative product or creatively integrated personality can result. It can ultimately mean an elevation in job, a higher social position, or heightened individual social awareness.”

Neutralizing the features of bereavement:

Dan’s advice to surviving parent’s and guardians? Don’t parent alone. Seek help from the community and keep the memory of the deceased alive. Perhaps most importantly, keep children from isolating themselves. According to Dr. Wolfson, “encouraging bereaved children to connect with other kids is one of the best things parents and guardians can do.”

To read the full article and to gain more insight into Dan’s advice, click here: How the Death of a Parent Affects a Child

In addition to his work at Rennicke & Associates as a clinical psychologist, Dr. Dan Wolfson is the clinical director of Experience Camps for Grieving Children. For more information on Dan, click here.

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