Much of the same advice about helping your child through a sibling's death also applies if one of her parents dies. The elements of guilt and fear may be just as strong after a parent's death as they are after a sibling's. If your partner dies, your child will have a profound fear that you will die, too. She also will feel a tremendous sense of guilt over any of the conflicts she had with your partner.
The death of your partner may draw you and your child closer together. It will, of course, be difficult to cope with your own loss and at the same time help your child. But you may find that you depend on each other to get through this crisis. If you, your child's only surviving parent, openly show your grief, your child will be encouraged to do the same. If you can provide your child with love and reassurance, she will gain the confidence she needs to return love and reassurance to you. And if you talk about the death together, it might help both of you to make some sense of this senseless death.
Regardless of her relationship with the deceased, the emotions your child will feel after the death of someone close to her will cover a wide range. Your child may go through periods of endless crying, anger and irritability, self-blame, blaming others, and stoicism. The most common emotional responses of preschoolers to the death of a relative or loved one include:
Many grieving children now have access to support groups designed specifically for their needs. If you think your child might benefit from joining a support group, contact your local hospital—or better yet, your local children's hospital—to see if they can refer you to a group in your area.
Don't worry if your preschooler regresses somewhat after the death of a loved one. It's common for grieving young children to regress. You may see an increase in bedwetting or a return of thumb-sucking. She may understandably become extremely weepy and clingy. Be patient and understanding. Talking to your child and helping her through her grief will in time reverse this regression.
- Denial Your child may refuse to believe it really happened. Denial may last just a few days or may stretch on for several months. If your preschooler is in denial, don't pressure her to accept the death. She'll do that when she's ready. Just try to provide your child with the understanding and patience she needs during this difficult time.
- Anger and resentment Your preschooler may be enraged that the deceased abandoned her. This may lead to constant irritability. Try to be patient and understanding. Don't rebuke your child for her feelings, no matter how much it hurts you to hear her speak ill of the dead. Bottling these feelings up will only make them worse and might bring on a severe depression. So give your child the opportunity and permission she needs to let loose with her rage.
- Sadness or loneliness Your child's sense of abandonment by the deceased may be compounded by the fact that you may be so involved in your own grief that you may unwittingly neglect her sadness. You need to move beyond your own grief and sadness, at least on occasion, to attend to hers. If you can't do it yourself, then ask another adult to whom your child feels close to help her through her sadness.
- Depression Your preschooler may have trouble sleeping, lose interest in eating, and not even want to play anymore. In the wake of death, even a young life may seem somewhat empty and purposeless. Depression is a common response to the death of a loved one, but if it persists for more than a couple of months, your child may benefit from professional attention.
In the meantime, do what you can to bring some joy back into your child's life. Special treats, new games, and field trips may not remove your preschooler's underlying sadness, but they may give her a much-needed break from grief and help make life seem worth living again.
- Guilt Your child may blame herself for the death. According to thinking common among preschoolers, misbehavior is punished. So if she's suffering such a severe punishment (the abandonment of a loved one), she must have done something terribly wrong (even if she doesn't know what it could be).
- Fear Your child may go into a panic that she or you or someone else will die. She will likely suffer from severe separation anxiety. The fear may be tied to a particular condition or activity (sickness, driving) that parallels the circumstances surrounding the death. If your child is in a persistent panic state, she'll need repeated reassurances from you that you don't expect anyone else close to her to die.
If any of these feelings persist—on a regular basis, not just recurring from time to time—beyond a few months, your child may need professional help.