How the death of a parent affects a child.
Nicky Fuchs got her first period at her mother’s funeral when she was 11. A few days before, on Valentine’s day, her family had found her 34 year old mum, Rachael, dead with no explanation.
At the time, Rachael worked at a veterinary clinic and lived with Nicky’s stepdad in California. Then suddenly they were burying her and Nicky was bleeding.
“I had to become a woman that day. That was a pretty painful thing for a very long time, getting that period,” Nicky says. “From February until June, I lied about having a period every month because I was in denial about life. I just shut down.”
After her mum’s death, Nicky’s biological dad gained full custody of her and she had to move from California, where she had a tight knit, supportive group of friends who were there when her mother died, to Maryland with her dad. There, she says she had to learn how to live a new life. She felt like her dad and his wife wanted her to forget what had happened.
For two years, she didn’t believe her mum was dead. She thought maybe her mum was playing a game or testing her. “Because I was so young, I didn’t get to grieve her. I just had to keep living life, go through school, and pretend like everything was okay” says Nicky. “I can’t tell you how many times my stepparents and dad asked, “how are you not over it?”
Although grief is a normal human experience that most people adapt to over time, losing a parent when a child is young is a significant stress factor that requires extra support, says Dan Wolfson, a clinical psychologist specializing in grief and loss. Wolfson speaks from years of personal and professional experience. His mum died from breast cancer when he was 18.
“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 says.
In younger children, grief often manifests in anxiety. Because children rely on their parents to meet their basic needs, kids who have lost a parent may ask who will pick them up from school or make tea. They sometimes worry about their surviving parent dying, too.
The death of a parent often leads to other losses too, such as having to move, switch schools, or live with a different parent, like Nicky experienced. Because the family’s financial situation may change if the deceased parent worked, teens may have to get a job to help support the family or watch younger siblings. If the parents were together at the time of death or maintained a strong bond after ending their relationship, the surviving parent may also be grieving deeply, which can impact their ability to support their children.
As teens, Wolfson says kids’ grief can begin to look more like depression or low self-esteem. Having a parent die at a young age is a life-altering experience that can make them 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. Nicky says that almost 20 years after Rachael’s death, she still felt out of place for a long time.
In adolescence, kids also typically become more independent and less affectionate with their parents as they develop their own identities. If a parent dies during this healthy individuation process, their teenager may feel guilty about it.
Major depression and post-traumatic stress disorder has increased risk when a parent has died due to an accident, suicide or another sudden cause, suggests childhood bereavement research.
But Wolfson is quick to emphasize that with the right kinds of support, children and teens can adapt, learn to express their grief in healthy ways, and thrive. A parent’s death is going to have psychological and physical impacts on a child, but those impacts can often be overcome with time and help.
“I feel like I’ve been able to witness for myself and children I’ve worked with real hardships, real trauma, real challenges I’ve been able to see their individual capacity to adapt and overcome and lead fulfilling, positive lives,” Wolfson says. “I really believe in human potential to overcome challenges that life throws at us.”
After a parent dies, Wolfson says children immediately feel that their world is unsafe, so families need to provide them with structure and assurances that their needs will be met. To help build those structures, Wolfson tells surviving parents and guardians “don’t parent alone.” He recommends drawing on community resources, like support groups. He says that encouraging bereaved children to connect with other kids is one of the best things parents and guardians can do, as well as telling stories about the deceased parent and helping the child build a redefined relationship with them.
As time passes, it’s important for children to know that it’s okay to say that something sad and hard has happened to them, but they can also go on to have a positive life.
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,” Wolfson says.
In college, Nicky says she binge-drank and was obsessed with sex. She dyed her brown hair blonde like Rachael’s hair because she felt like she needed to look like her mum so she wouldn’t forget her. It wasn’t until Nicky was in High school that she felt safe enough to process her mother’s death.
Yet Nicky’s desire to know what killed her mum led her down a path where she has found fulfilment. As a biology graduate she took pharmacology class where she had to write a paper on a drug of her choice, so she looked up her mum’s toxicology report and read about the drug combination found in her system. That’s how she learned that her mum probably acquired at least one of the drugs from her job at the veterinary clinic. Now a scientist and comedian, Nicky says Rachael’s death sparked two of her greatest passions.
“I don’t think I would have become a drug scientist if I wasn’t curious about what happened to her,” Nicky says. “I think my job is really cool and what I do everyday and how I make money is really exciting. I don’t think I would be able to do stand-up comedy without having gone that low to want to show people that laughing is the cure for everything.”
Nicky says there are still times when she wishes her mum were alive. Other times, she thinks that if Rachael were here, Nicky wouldn’t be leading the life she has.
Article by Virgie Townsend