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Dad Daze: What to do for a child when a parent passes away

UPDATED: Sun., Jan. 9, 2022

Ed Condran's column Dad Daze appears every Monday in the Family section of The Spokesman-Review.  (Jesse Tinsley/The Spokesman-Review)
Ed Condran's column Dad Daze appears every Monday in the Family section of The Spokesman-Review. (Jesse Tinsley/The Spokesman-Review)

“I want you to notice / when I’m not around.” – Radiohead, “Creep”

One of my favorite rituals, walking my young children to school, was possible after moving just three blocks from our old elementary institution. It was a bit like the Beatles classic “Penny Lane” but with quirkier characters along the streets.

There was Bob, the ditzy crossing guard who was fired after delivering an off-color joke to a kindergartner. There was Paul, the gruff, disheveled former football coach with a Boston accent as thick as New England chow-dah. However, one day the world-weary Boston Red Sawx diehard emerged from his Victorian in an immaculate dress, with long flowing gray hair answering only to Paula. It was a drag since our normal heated sports discussions turned into polite discourse.

And then there was Regina, one of the most lovable folks I’ve ever had the pleasure to know. The mother of my daughter Jillian’s schoolmate Monica always had a good word, which was a godsend on many mornings marred by the helter skelter of ushering off reluctant elementary school students to class.

“Hi, Ed, how are you?” was simply how I was greeted while Regina stood next to her massive mutt Muenster, who was always as kind as his owner. Regina slowed down the day, which was so refreshing.

Regina and I would chat about our kids, school and her daughter’s love of boybands. When I arranged for tickets for a Jonas Brothers concert, I recall how reluctant Regina was to catch the singing siblings, but of course she attended since none of Monica’s friends wanted to go.

“I’m not a big fan, but Monica won’t be there by herself,” Regina said. Regina always did the right thing, and I was shocked when I learned that she passed away last week. Unfortunately, cancer returned, and Regina bravely succumbed to the insidious disease. I can’t help but feel for her husband, John, an affable, thoughtful and gentle man, Monica and especially for her young son, Nick, who is only 11 years old.

While waxing about Nick, Regina would gush about how proud she was of her only son and how excited she was to witness Monica enter adulthood. Regina was the consummate mother.

There’s a big void for Nick, John and Monica. It’s an unfortunate situation for many families, particularly in the age of COVID-19. What is the best way for a prepubescent to deal with such a loss?

“The first step is to get the child to a grief counselor,” child psychologist Kim Burgess said while calling from her Rockville, Maryland, office. “It makes a huge difference. The child often doesn’t want to say what they need to say because they’re busy protecting the surviving parent. You want him to speak freely without hurting that parent’s feelings. Two to five sessions with a grief counselor, who has experience with children, will benefit the child.”

Dr. Burgess, who created the Biopsychosocial Health Intervention and Prevention method, insists that a parent should be direct with a child who lost their parent. “Don’t sugarcoat anything,” Burgess said. “The child should know the facts.”

Burgess insists that the surviving parent be ready for and open when their child is compelled to speak and emote. “When the child needs to talk, you must stop everything,” Burgess said. “You listen when they need to get things off of their chest and cry.”

It makes sense. I recall my daughter Jillian losing it at age 10 when my mother passed away. If I wasn’t there, perhaps that cathartic experience would have never happened.

Normalcy and socialization should be a priority for a child after a devastating loss. “Let the child be as active as possible,” Dr. Burgess said. “Let him hang out and keep busy with sports and friends. Have as much of a semblance of regular life for him as possible. Also, let their teachers and counselors know. They need to give him a pass emotionally and academically for a period of time.”

And consider the surviving parent, as well. “The widow or widower needs a support system,” Dr. Burgess said. “It’s hard to keep parenting normally when you’re so preoccupied with grief. When a parent passes away leaving behind a child, it’s incredibly difficult.”

Regina, I definitely notice that you’re not around. You made an immense difference just by expressing yourself in such a calm and thoughtful manner each morning. May you rest in peace.

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