It was New Year’s Day and we spoke of all that had happened in 2022, the births, the graduations, the illnesses, and the deaths. As we wished for peace, happiness, and good health in 2023 one among us commented that we don’t usually get too upset when one of our parents dies because that is the way life works. We expect our parents to die before we do so it is never that difficult to lose them.
I jumped into the discussion insisting that this theory did not work for everyone, especially when a parent dies when a child is only eight years old as I was when my father’s died. I told our group that the loss of my father was the most traumatic moment of my lifetime that impacted virtually every aspect of who I am today. At times I have struggled to deal with the raw feelings that overwhelmed me in a time when most people believed that children were hardly affected by such things. At other times my experience allowed me to better understand my students who were struggling with similar disturbing life events.
As an educator I observed that children who had endured the loss of a mother or father either through death or abandonment struggled to cope with grief that was all too often underestimated by the adults around them. This was particularly true if the event occurred when they were between the ages of eight and fifteen. I noticed that more often than not they had been left to sort our their feelings alone and they simply did not have the proper tools to deal with the sorrow they were experiencing, nor did they know how to convey their suffering to others. They simply felt strangely adrift and created their own coping mechanisms which were sometimes harmful to themselves and others. They were at times viewed as outsiders, trouble makers, delinquents, unlikeable little people even to themselves.
Whenever I talked with such youngsters and conveyed my understanding of how they were feeling they more often than not opened their hearts to me, revealing the confusion and hurt that they had been afraid to make public. They felt a mix of emotions that included deep sorrow and anger that guided their seemingly erratic behavior. They longed to feel the joy and innocence that had been so uplifting before the moment when their lives changed so drastically. They felt different, withdrawn, and sometimes even remorseful for making a difficult family situation even harder for their remaining parent.
Not everyone who loses a parent reacts in a negative way. Not every family of that child ignores the signs that they are in pain. Each of us is an individual, but there is a pattern of severe emotional distress among many youngsters who have lost a parent that takes form in undesirable behaviors or a kind of withdrawal from the world. If those young people’s feelings are not properly addressed they may eventually evolve into addictions, aggressions, anger, suicides, and even criminal behaviors. I can think of dozens of such examples from the pages of the news and from my personal interactions with troubled students.
As a society we need to be aware of such things. I applaud Harry Windsor for bringing his own story to the public. He was only twelve when his mother died. The attention was thrown on his grandmother, the Queen, and his father, the future King. Harry had to don a stoic face at a time when he was emotionally devastated. In the ensuing years he was sometimes said to be the trouble making prince. The press and the people around him made light of his cries for help that even he may not have realized he was making. Now that he is honestly addressing his pain and trying to help others in the process he is still being unheard, misunderstood and even shunned by many. I applaud Harry’s courage because I know quite well how important it is to face the emotions and fears that come with losing a beloved parent.
I am appalled whenever I hear adults criticizing a child who is struggling to be whole. We need not forgive bad behavior, but we would be wise to show the young person how much we love those trying to overcome a painful loss. If we only ignore or condemn them we run the risk of losing them to their fears and demons. Love demands that we let them voice their feelings no matter how toxic they may sound and then make real attempts to help them heal before the monsters inside of them become solidified.
Little good comes from having a stiff upper lift and carrying on as though nothing has happened when a child loses a parent. Often we provide comfort to the adults because we assume that they are suffering. We cannot forget the children as well. Their personalities are in the process of forming and trauma can distort them for the rest of their lives. Much of the trouble we see in the world derives from pretending that all is well and looking the other way. The poison toxicity of ignoring pain can lead to death of a soul. It’s up to all of us to make sure that the “might have beens” of a child are not damaged. Watch them. Encourage them to talk without judgement. Drain the poisons from their minds. Listen to the children.