Eric Lichten. Handbook of Death and Dying. Editor: Clifton D Bryant. Volume 2: The Response to Death. Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage Reference, 2003.
“My father died when I was seven years old. I’ve always thought that was the most important thing anyone could know about me.” ~ (Gordon 1996:xiv)
Mary Gordon lost her father when she was only 7, barely old enough to remember with any accuracy his presence in her life, who he was, how he lived and experienced his life situations, or even the content of his character. She is like so many adults who lost a parent when they were young, before having a chance to grow up and know that parent with the insight and maturity of an adult mind. What Mary did know was clear: His death ended her childhood, with its innocence, its security, its belief in life’s endurance, and even its sense of home. Her father’s death “split [her life] in two, into the part when [her] father was alive and the part when he was not” (Gordon 1996:5). Moreover, his death marked her childhood memories as necessary illusions, designed to keep alive that innocent acceptance of her father, to make her father larger than the life he had and lost.
Haunted by this devastating and destabilizing loss, Mary needed to discover who her father truly was, thereby discovering who she herself is. Having been traumatized by her father’s death, Mary still searches for his real identity and, therefore, her own. Having foreclosed his identity at his death with the mind of a 7-year-old, Mary seeks to debunk her own notions of her father’s greatness, of his uniqueness, and in so doing recover her father as a human being, as a real person who once lived and who helped shape her life, even in his death.
When a parent dies, a series of consequences seem to cascade out of control and, most certainly, out of the comprehension of a young child. Families move, surviving parents mourn, the clothes and belongings of the deceased disappear, and often, new people, sometimes even new stepparents, soon populate the inner life of the family. These changes are dramatic alterations and redirections of the child’s life and of the life and structure of the family. This was certainly the case for Mary. After her father died, Mary and her mother left their family home, discarding her toys and childhood possessions—the possessions that playfully define a child’s enjoyment and identity.
I understood what had come to an end. My mother and I moved out of our apartment into my grandmother’s house. I never saw the apartment again, and I never saw most of the things I’d had there….The furniture, the lamps, the cheerful dishes. And my toys: my windup Cinderella, my tin dollhouse, the Alice in Wonderland rug. They were banished. Were they burned, sold, put upstairs in the attic? I was afraid to ask….Everything was simply gone, no longer on earth. It had disappeared, as my father’s body, for no better reason, had disappeared. (Gordon 1996:5-6)
Unlike many who lose a parent while still a child, Mary is a gifted writer, and her story of redemptive searching for her father’s life and her consequent self-discovery is written for all to read and learn from. Her story poignantly demonstrates that the search for one’s deceased parent is equally the search for one’s own history, one’s own identity, and a significant part of the self that needs to be discovered so that the child within may be recovered and healed. The grown child’s adult search for her lost parent and lost childhood is one way that adults put to rest unresolved grief originating in a parent’s untimely death. The adult reconnects to her childhood, her deceased parent, and even the family history as a revived experience, and thereby comes to terms with some of the consequences of that loss.
Children who lose a parent, or both parents, stand apart from their peers who are spared such trauma. Sadly, there is no shortage of children who will know the life-altering power of parental death. “Approximately 2 million children and adolescents under the age of 18 (over 2%) have experienced the death of a parent” (Christ 2001:1).
Children as young as 3 may grieve for their deceased parent in ways appropriate for their stage of development. If older and of sufficient age, the bereaved child knows the emotional suffering that accompanies significant loss, the insecurity it brings in so many forms—emotional, physical, financial, and social—and the recognition that his or her life has forever been altered. Too early in their lives, these children know that life can be irrevocably changed in a moment, that significant others can disappear from their household, never to speak to them or hold them again. Children rely on parental existence more than anything else, but for children who lose parents, that taken-for-granted world is irretrievably lost along with the physical presence of the deceased parent.
In this chapter, I explore the experience of losing a parent as seen through a sociological lens. Although I look at children’s grief through some of the studies offered by the counseling and social work professions, along with some of the psychological literature concerning the emotional impact of the loss of a parent, I primarily use this information for sociological theorizing on parent loss and children’s bereavement while looking at the broader social experience of children’s suffering and living with parental death. Indeed, the focus here is on the social consequences of losing a parent—of losing one’s social guide and social mentor and, tragically, the consequent transformation of one’s social identity via loss, grief, and personal crisis.
Death and the Life of Children
All human beings suffer loss as they accumulate ever more years of living. Death, and the attendant suffering known as grief, unites all humanity in the universal experience of the mortal dance of life and death. If one lives long enough and forms social attachments, there is no escaping the inevitability of the death of intimate associates, friends, and family, loved ones whose deaths bring great pain and suffering. “Grief is the price we pay for loving,” writes Rebecca Abrams (1999:x) in an insightful treatment of parental loss. But that price is typically not expected to be extracted from children experiencing their parent’s early death.
Adults assume the existence of grief as they grow older. They watch their parents grow old and eventually die; as adults approach their middle years, they may watch some of their contemporaries fight disease and die or die of accidental and sudden causes. Death is an expected and anticipated part of adult life, even planned for, and is very much seen, as Abrams (1999) so rightly informs us, as the consequence of living and loving.
Death and its consequences touch the lives of children differently than for adults. In postmodern America, early parental death is not an expected and anticipated part of a child’s universe; nor is it always understood. Although children as young as 3 may grieve for a lost parent, for a child, death most typically belongs to and is encountered in the land of fantasy books and Disney movies and is an ingredient in the enjoyment of fictive stories and popular culture (Christ 2001:1; see also Worden 1996:9-12). In these stories, typically the evil, immoral, criminal person dies as part of the triumph of good over evil, of law over crime, of morality and love over immorality and hate. That kind of death is temporary and left on the movie screen or on the pages of a book. When facing that kind of fictional death, the child is comforted by the life of the parent, by the cuddling warmth provided by knowledge that one’s parents—one’s mother and father—are present at the end of the day to make right everything that has gone wrong during that day. For most young children, death is an ingredient of fantasy and can be relived day after day; hence it is not real and carries no enduring character. In the products of popular culture directed at children, death is merely a dramatic prop and experienced by children as such. However dramatic, it is temporary entertainment and generally left in the movie theater with the discarded popcorn. In her discussion of fairy tales and children’s conceptions of death, Elizabeth P. Lamers (2000) points out that
although children may be exposed to literally hundreds of deaths in television programs and cartoons, these are a different kind of death, typically of a “bad” person who, because of some evil actions, deserved to die. Children’s cartoons… even foster the especially erroneous conclusion that death is somehow “reversible.” (P. 60)
Children who lose parents, however, do not have this luxury of fiction, of death as dramatic prop, of death as reversible nightmare. These children find that fictional deaths do not constitute adequate preparation and life experience for coping with the reality of death of a real being, of a beloved person in one’s family, let alone a parent. Even when prolonged illness precedes the death of a parent, a child, however old, has inadequate preparation for the life-transformative power of the death of a parent, and younger children may not yet know what death truly means, may not yet have an accurate sense of the meaning of permanence (see Christ 2001). The young child may engage in wishful thinking, otherwise referred to as magical thinking (see Goldman 2000). Consider the words of John Durning, age 15, one of many children who eloquently recount their loss of a parent to Jill Krementz (1981) in her emotionally moving book How It Feels When a Parent Dies.
I remember…I had just finished third grade, so I was about nine. Mom went to the hospital and …stayed in intensive care … I visited her twice and then she got better and came home. Everything seemed normal…. Then, [my brother] Skip… told us that Mom had died from an aneurysm. At first I couldn’t believe it, like “Wheh!”—it was such a shock….
My father…was home taking care of the rest of my sisters and brothers, especially my littlest sister Jenny, who was only one and a half. She didn’t really understand what was going on….At the funeral I didn’t cry much because I was too young to realize that I wasn’t ever going to see my mother again. (Pp. 53-54)
John is one of 10 children who had just lost their mother to an aneurysm. Although her children were terribly shocked by their mother’s death despite her prior illness and hospitalization, John found solace, comfort, and strength in his large family’s pulling together. In his very open and personal account, John tells us about helping his youngest sister Jenny grow up despite this loss. In his own and his siblings’ protectiveness of Jenny, John points to his siblings together fulfilling part of the social role assigned to a mother, and by so doing, they all “spoil” Jenny. Although ever so personal, John’s is a recurrent experience for children who suffer parental loss. This is especially true for older children. They are often asked to fill in for the deceased parent in his or her social and emotional roles. For many, this is an added burden that forecloses their own independent development, sometimes creating a premature maturity, impeding their own grieving, and even robbing the bereaved child of his willingness to show his own vulnerability and need for support. As we shall see, it is especially the case for older children—for teens who are sufficiently grown—for the remaining parent or others to expect them to fulfill some of the role responsibilities of the deceased. But younger children lacking prior experience with death may deny the loss or simply fail to recognize its power. Unable to recognize death’s permanence, they may expect the dead to come home at some later time. According to Christ’s (2001) study of bereaved children, children between 3 and 5 years of age may take as long as 3 months before realizing that the deceased parent is not coming home. Nevertheless, these young children exhibited symptoms of deep mourning, including “temporary irritability, toileting regression, sleeping with the surviving parent, somatic symptoms, nightmares, and increased separation anxiety” (Christ 2001:3).
Prior to the death of a father or a mother, children typically do not fathom the influence of such a loss; furthermore, children may not believe it can happen. It is not yet part of their everyday reality, of their practical experience with daily life. To their young children, even teenage children, parents are perceived as permanent fixtures in their universe until that day when they are no more than memory. Valerie Crowley was 14 when her father, a firefighter, died after fighting a fire. She was 15 when she gave this account to Jill Krementz (1981):
My father was a fireman for thirteen years and before that he was a policeman. I always felt proud of what he did because he saved other people. He was like a soldier in a way, working for his country….
Even though he was a fireman, I never thought about my father dying. He never got a cold and nothing was ever wrong with him. Sometimes I would think that maybe he’d have an accident—like the rope would break or something—but I never thought he’d have a heart attack because he was always so healthy.
…I came home and the fire chief was there,…My mother was crying and she said “Daddy’s not going to come home anymore.” At first I thought, “Well, maybe he just got hurt …” but they were telling me that he had a heart attack and died and I couldn’t believe it….
My brother was only seven and I don’t think he understood what was going on. He never even cried. He just stood there with no expression on his face. Even now, when somebody tells him he looks like his father, he’ll say…”What father?” as though he never had one….
I just sat there crying and saying, “I can’t believe it, I can’t believe it,” because he had died …that day…and…I had been walking home from school… and [my friend]… asked me, “What would you do if your father ever died?” and I had said, “My father wouldn’t ever die. I wouldn’t be able to believe it. I couldn’t take it.” (Pp. 89-91)
These accounts of losing a parent, so importantly and movingly provided in Jill Krementz’s work, remind us that children experience the traumatic consequences of death differently than do adults. For so many of them, death is far removed until it arrives, surprisingly powerful and numbing, redirecting their emotional and social role relationships with surviving parents and other adult mentors. Although death is normal and therefore a part of the human experience, it is not deemed “normal” in the social and emotional lives of children because they perceive and expect life to proceed. America’s is a culture that has hidden death from children, has institutionalized death, and largely, during most of the 20th century, has removed death from the family home, thus keeping it far away from children’s eyes. Still, older children at least can grasp what death is and, watching their terminally ill parent, may begin the mourning process before death arrives. Many of the older children, aged 15 to 17, participating in Christ’s study of children with a terminally ill parent, displayed a profoundly powerful anticipatory grief while their parent was still alive but moving closer to death (see Christ 2001:5). The youngest children, however, do not conceptualize death in an adultlike way; nevertheless, they are still deeply affected by loss even without the full appreciation of its meaning. Children need to be nurtured and supported; they need the security provided by the continuity of care and family life. A parent’s death threatens all this, even threatening to remove via grief the one surviving parent (see Worden 1996:37).
Certainly, a child at any age has his or her life course altered by parental loss, by the loss of both a significant emotional nurturer and a significant social mentor. A young child additionally experiences an absence of a relationship with the deceased parent that older children can call on in their personal and family memory, as well as their personal and family identity. Younger children may recall tender moments with the deceased, perhaps of play or cuddling, and may repetitively reenact such moments. Years later, they may experience renewed grief and intense sorrow provoked by similar situations that bring to consciousness these deep memories (Kastenbaum 1998:291). Furthermore, the separation of the individual from the collective memory of family life with the deceased may dissociate the younger child from his or her family history, as told and understood by the rest of the family—siblings and surviving parent. This means that the younger child may listen to stories and recollections of family time with the deceased but cannot call on those recollections shared by the remainder of the family and hence is isolated from the collective family memory of the deceased. That is an additional loss the young must bear, and it may even create a longing for years to come, perhaps even into one’s adult life. Tragically, American culture does not provide a ritualistic mechanism for reconnecting with and honoring the dead. Children may visit their parent’s gravesite, but collectively sanctioned rituals, repeated over time, are sorely missed by children (and adults) who need to reconnect again and again, thereby reestablishing a powerful connection to their parent (see Harris 1995:279-84).
Regardless of age, however, the death of a parent begins a course of mourning perhaps lasting many years and often well into adulthood. Children mourn in sporadic outbursts, and they mourn for the lost parent and for the life that preceded the parent’s death. One mourns for what was and what might have been; that is, the unknown future that a child expected to share with parents. A child leans on such expectations of permanence, for within such expectations there is stability and security. Moreover, within these expectations lies an embryonic future just waiting to be born through life experiences shared within a normatively “typical” family, with parents who are alive and well, now and for the immediate future. In that sense, the parent’s death brings turmoil to the life of a child, regardless of the age that the child experiences the loss. Grieving children may blame themselves for their parent’s death, or they may misbehave in school or exhibit separation anxiety. They may regress to an earlier developmental stage and pattern of behavior or show anger. They may relinquish some of their independence, seeking the security of parental authority (see Wolfeit 1983:19-50).
The turmoil may be seen beyond the privacy of the family, for with the loss and the concomitant behavioral changes comes the public recognition that the life of this family and this child are now different from those children’s whose parents remain alive. The loss constitutes a socially significant status, separating children experiencing parental loss from other children, alienating their experience from their friends’, and perhaps even resulting in social stigma.
Although debates continue concerning the age when children can first mourn like adults, it is clear that the social and personal lives of children change as soon as a parent dies. In our culture, despite significant social change in the construction and performance of gender roles, an infant who loses a mother often loses the parent most responsive to her needs, the parent who carries the greatest social and emotional responsibility for the nurturing and care of that infant. It remains the case that
while the infant cannot yet conceptualize the permanence of death, the nature of the dead state, he can certainly respond to the absence of his prime attachment figure, usually the mother. It is likely he will look for her, even search for her, in places where she might normally be seen or was last seen. Children in this age range who can verbalize may keep asking where the dead parent is. Even if they are familiar with dead objects, animals, for instance, they cannot transfer this state to the mother who is dead. (Raphael 1994:78)
The youngest children cannot conceptualize the meaning of death or the whereabouts of the parent. Abstractions conjure up little meaning containing an explanation that is readily and meaningfully digested by the young. Mortality is beyond comprehension, and death is only disappearance from interactional recurrence. Adult explanations of death, of the disappearance of mommy or daddy, fail to comfort a child who has lost one of his or her major comforters and nurturers. The child awaits the return of the deceased, not understanding that death is permanent. In her guide for the surviving parent dealing with their grieving child, Helen Fitzgerald (1992) points out that
a preschool child cannot comprehend the word “forever.” You can tell a toddler that Daddy has died and that when someone dies, he is gone forever. The child will go out to play and in an hour come back to ask the mother, “When is Daddy coming home?” To this child, one hour is “forever.” This belief is further supported by some of the television cartoons children watch. Take the classic cartoon situation in which an animal character is smashed or thrown off a cliff, in effect killed, only to bounce back to life in the next frame, looking no worse for the experience. Thus children may be led to believe that death is reversible. (P. 55)
The notion that we are all mortal and that life ends for us all is one that is most difficult for human beings to accept. Western religious dogma founded in Judeo-Christian belief extends to its adherents the theological notion that life after death exists, thereby providing a religious basis for the ideological belief that human life endures, in some form, beyond mortal death. Adults may seize on these beliefs to find comfort in their own or loved ones’ lack of permanence. Children, both the youngest and the adolescent, may not find such comfort in such ideological constructions, however. Although some young children may find temporary comfort in conversing with a parent in “Heaven,” this is primarily a strategy for coping with the loss in its early stage. For a child unable to fully understand life and death theologically or biologically, Heaven does not offer the mentor that the parent was in both physical and social form, a mentoring needed by children to grow to maturity fully and wholly. A child is not sufficiently mature like an adult and cannot accept the truth of our own and their own mortality. “They are just beginning to learn about life and in its many aspects—its richness, diversity, and promise. That it will end one day is the aspect of life they are least prepared to grasp” (Fitzgerald 1992:73).
Even school-age children have difficulty understanding the full social implications of death. According to Fitzgerald, school-age children prior to their teenage years tend to imagine the dead as “a ghost, bogeyman, or a hooded figure with scythe” (Fitzgerald 1992:56). This indicates recognition of death as a threat but still involves a denial of the human face of death. Children between the ages of 6 and 9 “will also feel very confused and anxious, but will be more aware of why they are feeling that way, more aware of what has happened and what it means” (Abrams 1999:16). Although children younger than this will fail to understand the true context of their sorrow and may cry and cling to the remaining parent, these slightly older children are beginning to comprehend the meaning of their parent’s death. Six-year-olds may be a bit more confused at the concept of death, whereas 9-year-olds know death’s permanence but fear the shifting ground of behavior all around them. They may cling, be excessively obedient, and even hide their sorrow from other family members, especially the surviving parent. All this is an effort to please the adults on whom they rely for reassurance and guidance (Abrams 1999:16-17).
What is clear here is that although death removes the parent physically from the child, it also threatens the security provided to the child by the remaining parent. Its impact is far broader than its hold on the deceased as it pertains to the psychosocial development of the deceased’s children. The parent may be dead, but the long-term suffering has only begun, evidenced by both the reactions and shifting relationships between family members, between siblings, between the children and the surviving parent. Emotional and social relationships within the family may radically change in form and structure even while grieving proceeds.
Children and Mourning: Older Children
I was 15 years old when my father died in his 44th year. After years of illness and multiple heart attacks, he finally died, thereby ending a torturous journey through his last years. Sitting Shiva, as is the Jewish custom, was a new experience for my two siblings and me. The crowds of relatives, business associates, and friends came and ate, talked and laughed while my father’s children sought to reconceptualize what our family life would now be like. I recall that time as feeling out of my own body, watching the visitors from afar, even as they sat beside me. There was much talk about the valiant and gentle man my father was, how he fought to live, how everyone loved him—even the Nuns at St. Vincent’s Hospital in Manhattan where he died. For my Jewish family, it was deemed a tribute to my father that Catholics could love him. Even in death, religion and ethnicity color our perceptions and practices.
As they talked, he grew larger than life and was ever more removed from his own humanity. Like Mary Gordon’s depiction of her own father, I, too, had lost a realistic assessment of who my father really was, how he really behaved, and in what he really believed. Death was already robbing me of a real man—warts and all—and giving back a giant against whom I could not measure up.
A few visitors told me that I was now the “man” of the house and that I needed to take care of my mother, older sister, and younger brother. I recall that I was easily caught up in the elevation of my social status, although I simultaneously felt inadequate to the task. I knew that this status as the oldest male in the family did not entitle me to much, and certainly, I was not leaving school to find full-time employment, however much money was now scarce. Yet I carried this eerie sense that I was suddenly much older than before and that my responsibilities had suddenly caused my youth and its attendant joy to disappear along with my father.
When my father lay dying in the hospital, my younger brother and I would go outside and play ball against the hospital walls. Amidst the coming of death and the fear it could generate, we affirmed our youthful status. But now, as adult men and women reminded me of my new social status, along with its awesome responsibilities, I removed myself from my apartment and walked to the schoolyard—the place where all my youthfully best moments seemed to occur. My friends were all there, and I joined them in a game of stickball, a form of baseball played in the inner-city neighborhoods of New York. I played without mentioning my father or my emotional burden. None of my friends spoke of my father or my loss although they were all 15 years of age and cognizant of death’s meaning and permanence. The game was played as all these games were played. For me the moment was surreal, lacking reality. I watched myself play that game, floating over my own body, observing the physical form moving through its motions. But my consciousness and heart were elsewhere, alone, afraid to talk or reach out. I was 15 and thinking that I was also 44, the oldest male in the family.
Teenagers occupy a distinct status in postmodern American culture. They possess their own subcultural forms of expression, language, music, and fashion and generally live a semiprivate life segregated from their families. They rely ever more on peers and seek an independence that is both feared and long awaited by their parents. Yet even as they test their independence and stretch normative and behavioral boundaries, they look to their parents for security, boundary setting, and guidance. They rely on parental authority even as they test its limits. Further complicating their lives are the enormous pressures teenagers face to succeed at school and to test their sexual desirability. They are encouraged to test future adult roles, however incrementally and, every so often, secretly.
Last, teenage life is fraught with danger—pregnancy, sexually transmitted diseases, alienation, and personal crises that test friendships, educational, and family support systems. But what happens when a teenager faces the death of a parent and perhaps the loss of this very much needed support system?
Although teenagers typically rely on peer relationships to experiment with adult roles and reduce their reliance on their parents, the bereaved teenager may find that friendships do not offer the openly supportive environment needed during the initial stages of grief. According to one study, with the exception of the small cohort of children aged 15 to 17, children who had just lost a parent to cancer did not care to share their grief with their friends. Despite their silenced and lonely grief, their friendships generally continued, and bereaved children did not generally disappear from peer group interaction, however much that interaction had changed or taken on new meaning for the bereaved child.
Yet these children experience significant modifications in their relationships with peers. Like my interactions with friends in that stickball game, male children generally remain quieter in their public expressions of grief. The findings of the Boston Child Bereavement Study, presented by J. William Worden (1996), offer us significant information concerning the extent of open grieving and public support offered by friends to grieving children. The study found that about 14% of grieving children were teased and given a hard time by their friends during the first year after their parent’s death. There were the cruel comparisons—”You don’t have a mother and I do”—and taunts, most often, but not exclusively by preteen girls. One-third of all the grieving children felt “embarrassed” or “different” because of their parent’s death. Some of the children feared being viewed as different from their friends, fearing social stigma; some others withdrew entirely, although this was atypical of the group of grieving children as a whole.
Age and gender are major variables in this grieving process. The Child Bereavement Study (Worden 1996) found that in the initial few months after the death, half the children spoke to their friends about their parent’s death. Adolescent girls were most likely to be open with their friends, perhaps reflecting the emotional bonds, higher levels of maturity, and more developed conversational skills acquired by girls, whereas preteen boys were the least likely—again, perhaps reflecting gender-based maturation and social demands. Some boys do not want to appear weak or needy. Boys may not as often share their inner feelings, showing vulnerability. Older boys may feel the need to publicly present themselves as in control, more like men than boys. Regardless, Worden (1996) provides us with the children’s reasons for not talking about their pain and the death itself:
Fear of crying in front of friends.
The subject never arises.
Friends are protective of the bereaved child.
Awkwardness on the part of friends.
Not knowing about the death.
[Hidden] circumstances of the death [after a suicide, for example].
Feels too personal. (Pp. 48-50)
According to Worden’s study, the bereaved children who had continuous, intimate conversations with their friends in the first few months after their parent’s death continued to talk to their friends through the first and second years of the study. The bereaved participants of this study, however, also reported that they felt different from their friends, mindful of their one-parent status. Factors that evened their status with a friend’s made communication easier—for example, having friends who also lost a parent or who had experienced their parents’ divorce. Still, permeating the life of a bereaved child are reminders of difference and, therefore, of loss (Worden 1996:50-54). Children experience many social activities grouped with their parents: father-son and mother-daughter activities, father’s and mother’s days, school events inviting parental attendance, and more. For these children absent a parent, a role model is gone and so is the ability to measure up to the norm—one such standard in the conferring of social stigma. Public celebrations of the child, of parents, and of family are painful reminders of their stigmatized status and stimuli for emotional pain.
Losing a parent poses serious challenges to the bereaved adolescent. When a boy loses a father, as my own story describes, the social pressure to act like a man generates newly acquired role relationships. Although teenage boys are developing their social competence in a variety of roles, bereaved boys may be told to reconfigure their role relationships within the family, adding responsibilities that they cannot truly fulfill. As a consequence, additional conflict may arise in the family, the teenager’s self-esteem may be challenged, and he may feel less in control of his life. He may feel a sense of powerlessness and fatalism and a heightened sense of anxiety (Worden 1996:90-92). This may be due to the sense that life is unpredictable and not within one’s power to control. The family’s finances may be threatened, and with that threat comes the potential for additional loss, perhaps even loss of home. For bereaved children, male and female alike, experiencing the death of a parent removes the sense of security and safety on which healthy developmental growth relies.
When a child loses his or her mother, he or she loses the parent most often responsible for both the emotional and social health of the family. And young women, mothers, do die despite the general longevity of women. Each year, approximately 125,000 young children, adolescents, and young adults are left motherless and grieving. In a generation of children, this could mean that 1 million children and young adults have lost their mothers (Edelman 1994:xxii). Mothers are so central to the character of family life that losing one’s mother even as a young adult could be devastating as one endures the rites of passage into adult life. In Hope Edelman’s (1994) insightful words, this translates into a
cultural resistance to [the idea of] mother loss [as] a symptom of a much deeper denial, which originates from the place in our psyches where mother represents comfort and security no matter what our age, and where the mother-child bond is so primal that we equate its severing with a child’s emotional health. (P. xxiii)
Mothers are the central characters in the family metaphor, personifying cultural notions of parental love. They represent the warm, nurturing function of love; the safety of home; the strength of understanding guidance; and the irrepressible support for the child, however young or old. Mothers manifest all the above, and more, in both popular culture and in the ever-widening social responsibilities women take on as they engage in both home and community, family and work, private and public success. In that sense, any assumptions and discussions about mother loss need to comprehend the shifting role patterns of the contemporary American family. Although popular conception may hold that these changes reduce the mother’s influence and importance, it should be noted that the opposite is the case. The mother’s significance has actually increased in her role and power within the ever-more fragmented American family. An example could be found in child care issues and maternal death. Although accommodations concerning child care for preschool children may already have been in place before the mother’s death, the daily facilitating of schedules for preschool and older children remain primarily the mother’s responsibility. Even as today’s women are deeply engaged in both parenting and employment, mothers live under the constant demand to fulfill both traditional and nontraditional female roles, to parent and to be employed for a wage. The effects of losing one’s mother are devastating, partly because women remain primarily responsible for the child’s immediate care. The loss removes the children’s main source of nurturing and their daily facilitator; regardless of whether this is in spite or because of significant role changes within the contemporary American family. This points to the role mothers still occupy in the structure of daily life in the American family. Mothers do most of the daily work of arranging and facilitating the lives of children—at home, in school, after school, and on weekends. In that sense, mother loss threatens the stability of daily life and routine for the surviving children.
In addition to losing the mother-nurturer—the parent who tends to touch, hold, hug, talk to, and expressively love the children—the child loses the mother-facilitator. The gender differences within the family’s division of responsibility and roles, and the gender differences in the way roles are performed, find expression in the differences between mother loss and father loss and child illness. Children who lose fathers are more likely to have health problems than those who lose mothers. Fathers give medicine, mothers give “tender loving care”; hence children are more likely to somaticize when losing a father. The child then gets the loving attention from the mother that he or she craves while grieving (Edelman 1994:76-77). But when the mother dies, the child’s craving for attention, including physical and emotional support, is less likely to be met. Furthermore, children who experience mother loss, compared with those who experience father loss, exhibit greater degrees of behavioral and emotional problems, including higher levels of anxiety and lower levels of self-esteem. They were more likely to misbehave, perhaps challenging the parenting skills and authority of their father. Surviving mothers and fathers find themselves reinventing roles even while they themselves grieve. Fathers may not be publicly encouraged to show as much emotional pain as mothers, lest they be perceived as weak. Their daughters may find that caretaking expectations are made of them that their brothers escape. The older daughters may be given household and child care tasks that were previously the responsibility of their mother. In response, there may be more conflict around dinnertime, when family conflicts and anxieties can be aired amid the changes wrought by the mother’s death (Edelman 1994:76).
When a girl loses her mother, the consequences are lifelong. As Edelman (1994) so eloquently demonstrates in her groundbreaking work on mother loss, daughters and mothers expect to be confidants well into the daughter’s middle age. The death of a mother breaks the chain of normative expectation and of role socialization. Edelman summarizes the feelings of losing a mother simply but powerfully: “My mother was the only glue that held the family together. I used to have a home, but after my mother died, I lived in just a house. No one ever gave me, as a child, permission to cry” (p. xx).
Teenage girls who lose their mothers do so at a critical developmental moment during which they shift constantly between fighting for independence and looking for reassurance. Conflict between mothers and daughters is not unusual during this time in the daughter’s life, and daughters simultaneously hold feelings of love and hate toward their mothers. Ambivalence seems to characterize a typical teenage girl’s attitudes toward her mother. When her mother dies, a teenage girl may be left primarily with those ambivalent feelings toward her mother—feelings that may endure for years manifested as guilt. Softer memories of more peaceful times when they were younger may be lost as defining pictures of the mother-daughter relationship.
With her mother’s death, an adolescent girl may grow up fast, being involuntarily granted the autonomy and independence she otherwise would have more slowly negotiated with her mother and father. Absent motherly supervision and scrutiny, the teenage daughter may find her father unable to provide the motherly presence for which she so desperately longs. Yet the experience of losing a mother well before adolescence, in early childhood, may actually be more destabilizing once that young child reaches her teenage years and adolescent struggles than losing a mother during adolescence. The need to detach from one’s mother during adolescence takes a different path caused by the earlier absence of the mother. Additional conflict and turmoil may result (Edelman 1994:49).
Social stigma also plays a large role in the everyday struggles of teenage girls. Even those girls with mothers struggle with identity issues, with peer group subcultures, with school and the conflicting demands of success and group acceptance. Struggles over independence and autonomy—and over the imposition of beauty images—commonly provoke conflict and inner turmoil. For the motherless daughter, all this takes place with an added burden. She feels different from her peers, perhaps even alienated from them by the feeling of uniqueness due to her family loss. Her loss may result in feelings of isolation because it may be difficult to share the loss with friends who cannot fathom that loss in their own lives. Whereas other girls simultaneously seem to battle and rely on their mothers,
adolescents without mothers are often deeply ashamed of having lost the parent other girls view as so central to a daughter’s well being. The teenaged girl who thinks her mother’s absence will make her appeal different or abnormal—and therefore subject to rejection from her peers—often will avoid talking about the loss or revealing any anger, depression, guilt, anxiety, or confusion to her friends. (Edelman 1994:51)
This tendency to isolate one’s feelings from public expression coexists with the new roles foisted on the teenage girl—roles that reidentify the girl as the “new mother” of the household, “minimothers” in Edelman’s view. Taking care of younger siblings, shopping, cooking, cleaning, even worrying about Dad comes with this new definition of self. Suddenly, the teenage girl is asked to grow up without time lag, without adequate preparation, without a mother to model herself after, to lean on, or to consult. Besides grief, she takes on the added burden of mature social roles, even as she needs more comforting, perhaps even to regress to a safer stage of development. Although these new responsibilities may provide the bereaved teenager with opportunities for growth and the development of socially mature competence and may contribute to feelings of self-respect to counteract the “shame” of being motherless, this is little comfort to the girl who now is asked to be a woman.
“My mother died when I was nineteen” [Anna] Quindlen wrote. “For a long time that is all you needed to know about me, a kind of vest-pocket description of my emotional complexion: ‘Meet you in the lobby in ten minutes—I have on a red coat, and my mother died when I was nineteen.'” (Edelman 1994:xix)
Conclusion: Before and After
Children who lose parents mark their lives in “before” and “after” chapters. When their parent is buried, a new path open en route to maturity and they must negotiate the ever-slippery terrain of growing up in a postmodern society with a different perspective from their peers whose parents remain alive. Family life is forever changed; parents are replaced by ghostly memories and stepparents. Childish roles are sometimes replaced by semi-adult role demands, and the altered family structure offers challenges as well as grief. Longing for the deceased takes shape within a context of regret, guilt, unmet needs, social stigma, anger, withdrawal, even depression. The longing can last a lifetime.
The surviving parent must cope with his or her own grief, renegotiate family responsibilities, maintain public responsibilities, earn income, work or find work, and supervise and nurture the children. The grief challenges their ability to get out of bed, to view life with hope, even to give hope to their children. The surviving parent may fight depression, lack energy for daily living, and fail to cope with the increased demands made on him or her. All the while, the surviving parent is expected to remain the parent. For fathers, this may demand—physically and emotionally—new role behaviors and new emotional connections to his children. Widowed mothers also find grief a challenge to their ability to meet the needs of those around them. Older sons may try to replace the husband or might be expected to become overnight the “man of the house”—minifathers, minihusbands, pretending to take care of their mother, keeping the family intact, safe from the hostile world.
But all this is pretense wrapped in grief. Sons and daughters rarely replace the emotional strength, the financial clout, the role stability and performance, the family glue provided to families, to children, and spouses that adult fathers and mothers can provide. The charade takes prisoners, and life is never the same. Instead, at the deepest level of the human being, at the deepest level of identity, in one’s very essence—children who lose parents are split in two, into before and after. There will be healing for most, but their wounds remain to be opened by the slightest reminders of what they lost, of what was, and of what could have been. When a child’s parent dies, they die forever, and with them goes a piece of that child.