Life & Culture

How to help when a child loses a parent


It's an image that will, for many of us, remain etched on our minds forever: the young Princes William and Harry, following the funeral cortège of their mother in September 1997. Amid all the very public mourning in the days following Princess Diana's death, at the heart of the tragedy were two young boys who had lost a beloved mother at a tragically early age. This week, for the first time, Prince Harry admitted that he regretted not talking about his mother's death for many years. Speaking at an event for the mental health charity Heads Together, he emphasised the importance of airing such issues.

Prince Harry is not alone in having had to cope with the death of a parent while still a child. Sadly, one in 20 children in the UK under 16 will suffer the death of a parent. There is a good chance that, in every classroom, there is a child who is going through some kind of bereavement.

Paul Levene, 50, was only seven when his father died after a short illness. "I knew something was going on," he recalls. "Near the time of his death I remember my sister and I went to my aunt to stay. I overheard my aunt speaking on the phone to my mum about the shiva."

For Jews, death is surrounded by ritual and tradition. Within hours of someone dying, the levoyah and shiva house have usually been organised, the house is heaving with well-meaning friends and relatives and the kitchen overflows with cups of tea and slices of cake. Some adults find this helpful, some struggle with it, but for a child, it can be overwhelming and confusing.

Rabbi David Lister of Edgware United Synagogue says that many authorities rule that a bereaved child is not obliged to observe the rules of mourning. However, others maintain that a child should observe the shiva, and this does has an educational value like any other mitzvah that a child performs.

"The obligation would come when the child is of an age when they could observe it reasonably easily and they could understand that what they are doing is a mitzvah. I believe that the current practice is that children who are able to do sit shiva.

"It is difficult to determine whether a child should come to the funeral. My personal view is that it is normally helpful for achieving closure. However, we would not insist on it if a child would find this very distressing."

He has officiated at funerals where children have been mourning a parent. "One can talk them through what is happening and reassure them that the deceased person is now at peace and that putting their body in the grave will not cause them any harm or make them feel dirty or cold.

"I don't think it is a good idea to gloss over bereavement or to lie about it. Bereaved people of all ages normally like to talk about what has happened with a sympathetic listener, and lying about it means that the child will eventually find out and have to begin the process of mourning and closure later."

For Paul, some memories of that time remain vivid to this day: "I remember my grandfather greeting me at the shiva - he was unshaven and was wearing an old jumper, which was torn. That sticks in my mind."

At school, like Prince Harry, Paul did not want to talk about his loss. "I remember an incident a few years afterwards, when I got injured at school. Stupidly, I had never really told people that I had lost my father. I broke my wrist in PE and the teacher said, 'Levene, I'm going to call your father.' When he came back, he said, 'Why didn't you tell me that your father passed away?' I didn't like to tell people. It wasn't a stigma; I just didn't want people to feel sorry for me. I never had any counselling - neither did my mother or sister. We probably should have done."

Today it is widely acknowledged that many children need specialist support to cope with the loss of a parent or sibling. Grief Encounter is the UK's leading child bereavement charity, founded 13 years ago by Dr Shelley Gilbert MBE, to provide information and support to bereaved children and those who look after them. Shelley has dedicated much of her life to this cause - she was orphaned by the age of nine so has first-hand experience of the intense emotional pain children suffer through such a loss.

Gilbert says it is "exceptionally common" for children not to want to talk about bereavement.

"It's a very difficult subject. It causes a lot of fear, and children and adults are complicit in not facing that fear. We bury it because we are scared but, if we can face those fears, we will learn to value every day - life isn't a rehearsal.

"Every child will feel guilt. Sometimes they think they did something to cause the death. Children have to grow up very quickly, and they need adults to help them, sometimes through one-to-one counselling, as children are rarely given the chance to tell their own story. At Grief Encounter we encourage play and creativity as some children lose the ability to play and have fun.

"We can work with families to keep mum's or dad's memory alive. But we don't want anyone to be stuck in their grief. We want them to be able to move on."

For the parent left behind to pick up the pieces, life suddenly has a whole new set of challenges. Annie was in the midst of studying for her GCSEs when she lost her father suddenly. Her mother Rachel says: "It's been the most difficult thing I've ever had to deal with. There was nothing I could do to protect her from this. Annie was very angry when she first found out. She kept saying, 'I don't know how to be.'

"She has never wanted any counselling; she dips in and out of it but feels it won't bring her dad back."

Rachel asked that we did not identify her family, to protect her daughter's privacy at a time when she is still vulnerable.

"Her friends have found it very difficult. People don't know what to do or say, so they don't do anything."

Annie is now at university and her mother describes her as "incredibly brave and inspirational". But the bereavement has left its mark. "She keeps herself busy and part of that, I'm sure, is that she can't be on her own with her thoughts."

Share via

Want more from the JC?

To continue reading, we just need a few details...

Want more from
the JC?

To continue reading, we just
need a few details...

Get the best news and views from across the Jewish world Get subscriber-only offers from our partners Subscribe to get access to our e-paper and archive