Advice to Newly Widowed Fathers of Young Children

Jeff Sovern

My daughters were aged three and five when their mother died. Here are some of the things I learned then or in the (now six) years afterwards. Of course, my situation may have been different from yours, and so you should disregard any statements that do not seem helpful to you. I am not trained in psychology or any related discipline and you should not treat the following as advice from a mental health professional.

Telling Your Child of His or Her Mother's Death.
If possible, obtain the assistance of a child psychologist or similarly-trained professional when telling your child of the mother's death. Don't compare death to sleep because some children, on hearing that comparison, become afraid of going to sleep. Similarly, don't tell children that their mother will watch everything they do from above since some children become concerned about their mother seeing them misbehave. It may help to explain death in terms of your religious beliefs, especially if your child is already familiar with them.

It's all right for your children to see you grieve to some extent for their mother, but they should also feel that you-or someone-is in control and able to tend to their needs. If your child senses that you find it very painful to see her grieve, she may stop grieving in your presence to protect you, which is probably not in her best interests. Your child needs to have someone in her life who can be there for her when she grieves, to help her get her feelings out. If you are that person, try to listen sympathetically when she grieves, no mater how hard it is for you to listen. Express a willingness to listen, but don't force grieving on your child. Often your child won't feel sad when you do. He may cry for a few minutes and then be ready to play.

The Funeral.
I believe you should allow your child to decide whether he or she will attend the funeral, but others have told me that young children should never attend a funeral. I explained to my daughters what would happen at the funeral, and showed them where it would take place. The five-year old wanted to go; the three-year old did not. I also arranged for someone to "shadow" my five-year old at the funeral so that if she changed her mind and wanted to leave, someone could take her out and attend to her needs. In the years since, the older one has never expressed regret about attending the funeral, but the younger one has sometimes said she wished she had attended. I nevertheless believe that each made the right decision for herself. The funeral presents an opportunity to collect memories about your child's mother. Someday your child may wonder what her mother was like. At the funeral, you can have an announcement made that you would like people to write to you with memories of your child's mother. Have written copies of the announcement with your address available. Many people wrote such memories for us. There have been times when my daughters wanted very much to hear me read them, and periods lasting years when we did not look at them. But they are there for when they want them. If people speak at the funeral about your child's mother, you may want to have the funeral videotaped, macabre as that seems.

After the Funeral.
If possible, consult a child psychologist. While psychologists can be expensive, many health plans provide for some bereavement counseling. Try to find a bereavement group for your child. Bereavement groups for children are often run by hospitals and hospices, and many are free or available at low cost. Bereavement groups and psychologists serve different, though related, purposes. Psychologists can help you address specific issues and problems unique to your child. Bereavement groups allow children to share their feelings with kids who have had similar experiences and feelings. That is especially important if your child is feeling like an oddball because he is the only kid he knows without a mother. It's best if the bereavement group includes at least one other motherless child because a child who has lost a mother has suffered a different kind of loss than other bereaved children. On another subject, try to keep your mother's family involved with your child. They will give your child some sense of his roots on his mother's side.

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