They not only lose one parent, but two; the remaining parent is literally not quite the same anymore. Thus children must face not only the absence of one parent, but a “new” remaining parent.
A child “protected” from the truth of a death often fantasizes a horror that is far worse than the truth would have been. And since the norm is silence, he carries this horror within himself for many years.
The whole aura of grief is frequently totally new to a child. She may have learned how to handle love, affection, fear, anger, hate, but grief takes her by surprise.
Children may well be suffering from terribly frightening guilt feelings. Some little thing they said to the deceased that they harbor as cause of the death. There may be a strong sense of self-blaming and feeling that it is all my fault.
As children seek relief in diversions not accorded adults, many adults say, “Ah, fortunately they don’t realize what’s happened. Lucky children.” The child is only too well aware that something terrible has happened, but it has not been explained to him nor has he been able to express his fears and other feelings.
Children may feel guilty that they may be glad that Daddy, after a hospital stay, has died. Now Mommy will be home again. (Children do not mask this with a philosophical comment such as, “It is a blessing that he’s gone—he was in so much pain.”)
Children cannot take reality in the same way adults can; but lying to them does not serve a good purpose. Always tell the truth to children and answer their questions honestly and directly. If you don’t know the answer, be honest about this too.
Children, who may or may not express it, can be terribly afraid that the next step after the death of one parent is the death of the other parent. Provide security by talking and planning around this. Assure them that this is very, very unlikely, but in case it should happen, this is the person(s) who would care for them.
Children can be severely damaged when the remaining parent tries to replace the deceased spouse with the child, “Now you are Mommy’s little man;” “Mary Jane is our new little mother.” (This may be done as much by deeds as by words.)
Teenagers, beginning to assert their independence forcefully, awkwardly and sometimes hurtfully, have their own inner torture when a parent dies.
Children who lose a wage earning parent may have fears that no one will provide for the family.
Children, as well as a surviving parent, learn to keep their grief to themselves. Often the surviving parent wants to protect the children and the children want to protect the surviving parent. Therefore they hide their pain from each other and grieve privately. If this is done too well, a child can grow up actually not knowing how to express feelings.
It is not uncommon for children to show “delinquent” behavior either soon or many months after the death of a parent, seemingly unrelated. However, the behavior can be triggered by the death.