Having lost my own mother to cancer when I was fifteen, I am acutely aware of the lifelong impact on children (infancy to age 17) whose parent or parents die. These children face a gauntlet of emotions as they grow up—deep sadness, a great sense of loss, and in some situations guilt and abandonment. Recently I stumbled upon the book The Loss That Is Forever by Maxine Harris, PH.D., about the lifelong impact of the early death of a mother or father. I saw many parallels in my own life in the examples Harris uses from her case studies.
Just over 5% of children are survivors of the early death of a mother or father. A higher number of deaths involve fathers while a smaller percentage involves the loss of both parents. The overall consensus of the adult children Dr. Harris interviewed, and I agree with them, is that they grew up feeling different and alone, without someone to watch their back.
A parent—a father for a boy and a mother for a girl—serves as a living example of how to be a person. Children follow the example set by that role model and when it is lost, the child struggles to piece together an identity. That same child may seek out an alternate role model in a family member or someone else they admire. Some become avid readers of adventure stories or biographies in their search for a role model to emulate and measure up to.
Without a mother or father to guide them, children often feel they are missing out on information that is vital to their own adult development. For example, observing a friend’s mother folding laundry can trigger an overwhelming sense of emptiness in a child who did not have a mother to teach her this simple task.
Actor James Dean was nine when his mother died. His father put him on a train with his mother’s casket and sent him to his hometown to be raised by an aunt and uncle. Dean used to sneak out of his uncle’s house at night to visit his mother’s grave where he would cry and plead “Mother why did you leave me? I need you…I want you.” Eventually his emotions turned to anger and he defiantly promised himself “I’ll show you for leaving me…I’m going to be great without you!”
Children grieve differently from adults. Adults may feel bereft and empty when someone dies that they loved deeply, but they know they will survive. On the other hand, children who lose a parent go through a range of emotions—panic, pain, terror, confusion. After all, if the parent they depended on can be snatched away from them, then nothing is safe, predictable, or secure anymore. Later in life, these same children may experience difficulty maintaining an intimate relationship out of fear this loved one too will abandon them.
Very young children lack the language skills and thought processes to even begin to make sense of a parent’s death. In comparison, adults who survived the Holocaust or the bombs dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki lived through horrors that could not be described or explained in words. These adult survivors were as helpless as children to make sense of the devastation and catastrophes that changed their lives forever.
Survivors of early loss speak of an emptiness that can never be filled. Infants and toddlers who lose a parent feel their absence rather than loss. They have no personal memory or attachment to the parent who died and only know him or her from stories and photos shared by family members. It is this absence they feel when they observe their friends celebrating Mother’s Day or Father’s Day. One woman whose mother died when she was a baby described the loss this way: “I never had her, so I don’t feel the loss. I experience the absence of a mother. There’s a hole where Mother should have been, a blank space.”
For most children, the loss of a parent would register ten on an emotional Richter scale. Sudden death—whether from murder, accident or unexpected medical crisis—shatters a child’s sense of security in the world. The early death of a parent also shatters core beliefs about safety, parental power, lovability and reality itself. One adult survivor described his reaction to his mother’s death when he was in grade eight as being “numb, like a sleepwalker going through the motions of life, unable to comprehend what happened.”
In situations where a parent dies from suicide, Dr. Harris has this to say: “The suicide of a parent shatters a child’s belief that he or she is lovable and worthy of being loved…a child must contend with the fact that the parent died willingly, that he or she sought death and knowingly, thoughtlessly and selfishly left the child behind. (The question) “If my mother or father loved me, how could they have left me?” haunts the lives of the survivors of suicide.”
When a parent dies young, children are introduced to death in a way that influences how they see the world for the rest of their lives. Singer Madonna says that her mother’s early death when she was just six taught her that life was short and no one should wait for the things they really want. Without a mother to guide her choices, Madonna was left with the responsibility of inventing and reinventing the woman she would become. Having grown into adulthood without the guidance of my own mother, I can certainly relate to Madonna’s sense of having to create and recreate the woman.
It’s when I observe the close relationship between mothers and daughters that I feel the loss of my own mother so keenly. I feel cheated that I never knew my mother as an adult or had her help and guidance when raising my own children. On the positive side, I attribute my mother’s death to my early interest in spirits and the Afterlife—an interest that has grown into a lifelong passion. What I know for certain is that parents who cross over continue to watch over and guide their children from the Afterlife.
The Loss That Is Forever by Maxine Harris, PH.D. is available at http://www.amazon.com
©Beverley A Young 2015