Sunday, June 15, 2014

Father's Day Without a Father

I was a kid without a dad. Not all that unusual, but at the time I remember feeling like I was the only child in the world in my situation. It's not that my father was dead, he was just not a part of my life. Either way the pain was the same. I hated going to school and all the other kids were making Father's Day cards to give to their dads. Stores lined with gifts for dads, cards for dads, commercials filled with loving and caring fathers. It thre in my face what I longed for and was missing in my life. For many children, Father’s Day is a joyous occasion and a chance to celebrate dads for their hard work and loving nature. But for those whose fathers have died, this holiday is far from festive. Sadly, my youngest son is living through this hell as well. Hope is not lost though for these fatherless children.

Below are some helpful tips to help from my own experience and from the parenthood website to help your children through this holiday when they are feeling loss, sadness and left out. When a parent is missing from one's life it feels like a death has occurred. There are the same feelings that have to be worked though in the grieving process as if the parent really did die, essentially for that child they have.

Be honest. Do not try to sugarcoat the situation. It may seem harsh at first, but the direct approach is much more effective than disguising the truth, which usually leaves children with more questions than answers. That's not to say to not keep things age appropriate. Obviously the discussion for a 7 year old will not be the same as with a teen.

Take cues from your children. Oftentimes, children in mourning can become distant and reclusive, shrouding their pain and uncertainty beneath a veil of indifference. If this is the case, don’t press your child to talk about matters she/he is not yet ready to discuss. Instead, acknowledge your child’s pain and remind her/him that you are experiencing similar feelings. You might say, "I know how you feel, and I am here when you need someone to talk to." Leave it at that, and don’t force the issue. Your child will eventually open up, but she/he needs to do it on her/his terms, not yours. Make sure you are keeping yourself available should they come to talk, dont send them away because you are too busy. Stop and make the time.

Express your own sadness. It’s tempting to assume the role of the unwavering pillar of strength during tragic and tumultuous times, but it is not the best model for your kids. Rather, let them know that you are sad, too. This will signal that it’s OK to express your feelings and show emotions. Try to open up the lines of communication by saying something like, "I really miss Daddy. It makes me sad to think he’s gone. Would you like to talk about how you’re feeling?" Open-ended questions like this not only empower children, but they allow them to steer the conversation. 

Make your children feel safe. The death of a loved ushers in a period of uncertainty. Suddenly, once carefree children start to feel vulnerable, insecure, helpless and abandoned. Many will worry that you are going to die next, and some will start, in the most basic of ways, to question their own mortality. For example, it isn’t uncommon for children in mourning to have sleeping problems. Most often, these occur because children fear if they fall asleep, they’ll never wake up. This is just one more reason why parents should never compare dying to "going to sleep" when discussing death with children.Instead, reassure your child that they are safe, loved and well cared for. Be careful, however, not to make unrealistic promises. If your child asks if you are going to die, give a sympathetic but truthful answer: "I want you to know that I plan on being here until I’m really old and you are grown up with kids of your own." 

Encourage artistic expression. For those children who are not ready to discuss their loss with others, try having them express their thoughts, concerns and worries through artistic means, such as journal writing, painting or drawing. Provide the appropriate materials—paints, molding clay, a sketchbook, pencils—and be careful not to supervise their projects. Let them use art as a way to explore and confront their innermost feelings. When they’ve finished, you can ask open-ended questions: "That is an interesting painting. I noticed you used many shades of blue. Why is that?" Boost their spirits by complementing their artwork and encouraging them to create more of it.

Reaffirm your spiritual beliefs. If your beliefs include a Heaven, discuss with your child how a person’s soul continues to live in our memories and in the afterlife long after the body has died. Be prepared for some tough questions, including "Why did God take Daddy away?" or "Will God want me to die next?" If you are a religious person, reiterate that God is a caring, compassionate entity who watches over the living and the dead. Many parents and children find that prayer, meditation, candle-lighting ceremonies and other forms of contemplation soothe their anxieties and bring spiritual fulfillment. 

Tell them it is not their fault. Some children blame themselves when a loved one dies. It is not uncommon for kids to "wish a parent dead" during an argument or misunderstanding. If the parent dies days, weeks or even months after such an exchange, the child may feel that his "wish" was granted. This can lead to overwhelming guilt, a debilitating emotion most kids are ill-equipped to handle. Ease these worries by continually telling your child that nothing he said, did or wished caused the death. Children cannot properly begin the grieving process until they understand they are not to blame. 

Join a support group or seek psychological counseling. Don’t be afraid to ask for help. Too often people view seeking support from others, namely professionals, as a sign of weakness or admitting failure. Nothing could be farther from the truth. There is strength in numbers, and people who have endured similar tragedies will understand the wide range of emotions you are feeling. Also, they can share stories of how they came to terms with their loved one’s death and what they did to help the healing process. 

Read age-appropriate books that address death. There are several excellent books for children that deal with losing a pet or a loved one. (Click here for a complete list.) Reading such titles together can serve as a discussion starter and help you better communicate to your children what it means to die and to grieve.Helping children to understand and accept death is not an easy or enjoyable task. However, once children work through their feelings and realize that they are not to blame for their loved one’s passing, they will start to cope with their loss and find comfort from talking and sharing with others. Most important, remember that grieving is a process, not a single event. Remain patient and allow your child to cope at his own pace, in his own way. The best thing you can do is to provide your child with the tools to cope - and extend your hand and heart.
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