Advice to Newly Widowed Fathers of Young Children
by Jeff Sovern
My daughters were aged three and five when their mother died. Here are some of the things I learned then or in the (now six) years afterwards.
Of course, my situation may have been different from yours, and so you should disregard any statements that do not seem helpful to you. I am not trained in psychology or any related discipline and you should not treat the following as advice from a mental health professional.
Telling Your Child of His or Her Mother's Death. If possible, obtain the assistance of a child psychologist or similarly-trained professional when telling your child of the mother's death. Don't compare death to sleep because some children, on hearing that comparison, become afraid of going to sleep. Similarly, don't tell children that their mother will watch everything they do from above since some children become concerned about their mother seeing them misbehave. It may help to explain death in terms of your religious beliefs, especially if your child is already familiar with them.
Grieving. It's all right for your children to see you grieve to some extent for their mother, but they should also feel that you-or someone-is in control and able to tend to their needs. If your child senses that you find it very painful to see her grieve, she may stop grieving in your presence to protect you, which is probably not in her best interests. Your child needs to have someone in her life who can be there for her when she grieves, to help her get her feelings out. If you are that person, try to listen sympathetically when she grieves, no mater how hard it is for you to listen. Express a willingness to listen, but don't force grieving on your child. Often your child won't feel sad when you do. He may cry for a few minutes and then be ready to play.
The Funeral. I believe you should allow your child to decide whether he or she will attend the funeral, but others have told me that young children should never attend a funeral. I explained to my daughters what would happen at the funeral, and showed them where it would take place. The five-year old wanted to go; the three-year old did not. I also arranged for someone to "shadow" my five-year old at the funeral so that if she changed her mind and wanted to leave, someone could take her out and attend to her needs. In the years since, the older one has never expressed regret about attending the funeral, but the younger one has sometimes said she wished she had attended. I nevertheless believe that each made the right decision for herself. The funeral presents an opportunity to collect memories about your child's mother. Someday your child may wonder what her mother was like. At the funeral, you can have an announcement made that you would like people to write to you with memories of your child's mother. Have written copies of the announcement with your address available. Many people wrote such memories for us. There have been times when my daughters wanted very much to hear me read them, and periods lasting years when we did not look at them. But they are there for when they want them. If people speak at the funeral about your child's mother, you may want to have the funeral videotaped, macabre as that seems.
After the Funeral. If possible, consult a child psychologist. While psychologists can be expensive, many health plans provide for some bereavement counseling. Try to find a bereavement group for your child. Bereavement groups for children are often run by hospitals and hospices, and many are free or available at low cost. Bereavement groups and psychologists serve different, though related, purposes. Psychologists can help you address specific issues and problems unique to your child. Bereavement groups allow children to share their feelings with kids who have had similar experiences and feelings. That is especially important if your child is feeling like an oddball because he is the only kid he knows without a mother. It's best if the bereavement group includes at least one other motherless child because a child who has lost a mother has suffered a different kind of loss than other bereaved children. on another subject, try to keep your mother's family involved with your child. They will give your child some sense of his roots on his mother's side.
Portrayals of Motherless Children in Various Media. If your child doesn't know other children who have lost a mother, he may feel strange. You may wish to expose your child to media portrayals of motherless children. Children's picture books which discuss the death of a mother include Cornelia Spelman's After Charlotte's Mom Died; E. Sandy Powells' Geranium Morning; and Eileen Sherman's The Odd Potato. Other picture books about death include Leo Buscaglia's The Fall of Freddie the Leaf, Judith Viorst's The Tenth Good Thing About Barney; Susan Varley's Badger's Parting Gifts; Doreen Rappaport's The New King (father dies, so you may want to be careful, but it's a good book on the subject); Hans Wilhelm's I'll Always Love You; and Sara Bonnet Stein's About Dying (grandfather dies). There are other books on death for kids, but these are the ones I think were most helpful. Liz Rosenberg's The Carouselportrays two motherless daughters. Norma Simon's All Kinds of Families mentions a family without a mother. Children having difficulty communicating their feelings may find Aliki's two picture books Feelings and Communication helpful. I recommend that you review these materials before exposing your children to them to verify that you're comfortable with what they say.
Nearly every animated Disney movie features a child who is separated from one or both parents, and often it's because the parent or parents have died. More recent Disney movies often depict the motherless child as a strong character (e.g., Beauty and the Beast, Pocahontas). Some television shows also show motherless children and their families coping with problems. Avoid the movie of Casper the Ghost, which shows ghosts forgetting their children-very painful for my daughters when I made the mistake of letting them see it-and The Little Princess-in which the father abandons his motherless daughter for a time. My children had no trouble with The Lion King-in which the child contributes to the father's death-but yours may. Movies in which someone dies or appears to die and then comes back to life (e.g. E.T.) can also be hard because it reminds your child that his mother did not come back to life.
Special Problems. Young children are often said to be egocentric, which means in this context that they sometimes believe that their conduct causes everything around them. Many children blame themselves for their mother's death; for example, a child may believe that her mother died because she wasn't nice enough to her mom. These issues are best handled by professionals, but bear in mind that it's not always enough to deny that what the child believes is so; often, a lot of listening and asking questions of the child is needed. Another problem which sometimes arises is that children are angry at their mothers for dying-which they perceive as abandoning them-but don't feel entitled to express it, or even feel it. Part of the job of the caregiver is to help the child understand that they are entitled to their feeling, without imposing their own feelings of anger on the child. Again, professional advice is important here. Finally, daughters who have lost a mother may have a lot of fears, often with justification. They may be worried about losing their other parent. This is likely to be highlighted if your child is in a bereavement group with a child who has lost a father, but is a common fear of motherless children even if they do not encounter a child who lost a father. About all you can do here is tell them you're not going anywhere and that you expect to live until long after they're grown up. They may cling to you-and sometimes you just have to endure it. My kids seemed to be comforted when I told them who would take care of them if something happened to me, but telling them that is a risk. on the one hand, it may confirm for them that your loss is a real possibility-after all, you wouldn't plan for something that isn't going to happen. on the other hand, it will help them understand that they will still be cared for if their worst fear comes true. They may also be frightened of dying themselves. Here again, you can reassure them that it won't happen for a longer time than they can conceive of. They may also be worried about loss of attention. Give them as much attention as you can, and solicit family members and friends to help. Try very hard to be at all the school events. It's hard for a child to look around and realize that he's the only one without a mother present. It's even harder to be the only one without anyone present. Over time, as he sees that you're a continuing presence in his life, these fears are likely to abate.
Helpful Books. Hope Edelman's Motherless Daughters and Letters From Motherless Daughters, Earl A. Grollman's Explaining Death to Children, Jill Krementz's How It Feels When a Parent Dies.
Taking Care of Yourself. There's a metaphor that's common among single parents: When flight attendants warn you what to do if the breathing masks descend during a flight, they always say "If you're traveling with small children, first fasten yours and then fasten the child's." Do what you need to in order to take care of yourself. Recognize that the quality of your life and your child's life is likely to decline, but you can still make your child feel loved and cared for-and that goes a long way.
What I Most Wish I Had Known Before My Wife Died. When my wife was dying, her greatest fear was that our daughters would not be all right. Six years later I can report that their lives are not as good as they would have been if my wife had lived, but that they are doing very well indeed.
Jeff Sovern is on the board of Directors at Responsible Single Fathers. This article was first published at the Responsible Single Fathers website.