Helping children cope with loss of a parent is complex

The key to helping the grieving child move through his or her developmental challenges is to move from an external locus of control to an internal one. | Getty Images

Q: The pandemic has put an extraordinary demand on my husband and me. We have been asked to care for our six-year-old grandson.

The problem is this. Our son’s wife died last year, leaving our son alone to care for their child.

I am not sure of the medical details of her death, but I can tell you that the death was expected some time ago.

Our son has done, I think, an admirable job of taking on his single parent tasks while dealing with his grief. But the pandemic has introduced a new variable. Because of the virus, we cannot be certain when the school will be open to its students.

Our grandson could at any time be sent home until another outbreak of the virus is being better controlled.

The problem is that our son cannot always do that. He cannot always be there when the school closes its doors to in-class instruction. He has a job to which he has to attend.

He has asked, therefore, that we take our grandson into our home, into the spare bedroom, and care for him until life throughout the pandemic is a little more predictable. Our son will, of course, be with us often to care for his son but by doing so in our house he is assuring his son that he will have a stable home environment.

My problem is this. I am not sure how best to raise a child who is likely still grieving the loss of his mom. I am OK with raising kids. I had four of my own and all of them are doing reasonably well. But I never had to deal with something as big as our grandson’s loss of his mom.

A: I think that helping children deal with the death of a parent is hard and complex. The worst thing that either your or your grandson’s father could do would be to patronize him.

Unfortunately, that is often what most people do. When dealing with grieving children they don’t structure their bedtimes, meal times and school responsibilities. The kids come and go pretty much as they please.

These are the same people who let grieving children get away with what would otherwise be seen as unacceptable behaviour, they acquiesce to all of the children’s demands and they insist on neither good health nor good personal grooming. Let’s back away from that one.

The key to helping the grieving child move through his or her developmental challenges is to move from an external locus of control to an internal one. The locus of control is the extent to which a person senses that she or he has some sense of control over his or her own life. When the person is leaning toward an external locus of control, he or she is thinking that he or she does not have much influence over his or her well-being. He or she is just a victim to the social and physical environment of which he or she is a part.

This is contrary to those people tending toward an internal locus of control. They believe that they have a significant degree of influence over their fates.

Most psychologists would recognize internal locus of controls as psychologically healthier than are external locus of controls.

Your grandson, because of the death of his mother, is vulnerable to an external locus of control, just as are most children who must struggle with the death of a parent.

And why not? Obviously, he had nothing to do with the death of his mom. He was a victim of fate.

However, he does not need to be victim to his own well-being. Even in the absence of his mom he can still participate in the world around him, he can learn to do his school assignments and he can make friends, help with the dishes and play baseball with the other kids. Maybe it is hard, for sure it is harder, but with your help and support and with the commitment his dad has made, he can reconstruct a life that is close to normal for himself, and won’t his mom, from her place of being, be so very proud?

Jacklin Andrews is a family counsellor from Saskatchewan. Contact: jandrews@producer.com.

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