CHILDREN / Coping with life after death: How do you help a bereaved child to mourn when utterly broken by the pain of losing a partner? Angela Neustatter speaks to survivors of grief

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JOSEPH'S father died when he was 13 months old. Gradually, as he learnt to talk, an obsession with Humpty Dumpty emerged. 'He talked about him endlessly,' his mother Laura recalls, 'and we had to sing the song over and over again. He used to repeat the line 'Couldn't put Humpty together again' and ask 'Is that like Daddy?' I think he was trying to piece together a concept of death.'

Laura's husband died very suddenly, so she had not prepared herself for the devastating impact of her grief. No less upsetting was the fact that she had no idea what form her son's distress would take, or how she would cope with his needs while grieving herself.

It is a desperate situation which too many parents face, struggling to do the best they can with little guidance or help. Suzanne, who lost her husband 18 months ago and was left with two children under eight, says: 'The most terrifying thing was that I didn't know I could or would cope. I was utterly broken by the pain, and felt I had nothing to give my children - but I knew I had to deal with them. It would have been so useful to know what to do; I did get bereavement counselling when I found the strength to seek it. But what I needed was access to tried and trusted knowledge.'

Children respond to bereavement in different ways. Symptoms range from withdrawal, seeming to cope with remarkable composure and maturity, to enormous distress, constant crying, anger, regression to bed-wetting and soiling, sleep and eating disturbances and a fear of being left alone. There may be hyperactivity in a desperate attempt to keep thoughts away, explains child psychotherapist Dorothy Judd. 'The child may also go into self-berating guilt of the 'If I hadn't shouted at Mummy she wouldn't have died' type - which, in a more sophisticated way, is what the bereaved parent often goes through as well.'

Parents, too, can feel guilty. 'They may feel frozen or remote from their children, and at the same time want desperately to make it better for them. They may be tempted to say to the child that it will hurt for a year, or set a limit. But if a child is feeling that he or she will never get over it, better perhaps to acknowledge that these things are terrible - but that people do get over them eventually. It is very valuable if a parent can take on a child's pain without trying to diminish it or escape from it, and help the child grieve.'

Many parents do not know how to do this. Should they hide their own distress or be open about it? Should they try to fill the child's time as a distraction? Is it right to give the child a lot of attention? Should they talk about the dead parent or try to avoid any reference or mention of their name?

As Laura says, 'You might be able to think sensibly around these questions at a normal time - and if a partner is ill over a long time you can seek guidance. But when your partner just dies, it's the most tremendous shock: you are utterly debilitated, stunned and numb. A child psychotherapist friend suggested that I should grieve with Joseph.' She didn't work out what to do logically, but acted instinctively and realised that Joseph was going through the same grieving pattern as she was.

'We both cried a lot and I cuddled and held him a great deal,' she says. 'At other times, when I cried he would put his arms around me and try to comfort me. I talked to him constantly about Sam and what had happened; and later, when he used to say to me 'Perhaps Daddy will come back,' I always said 'No' very firmly. I felt it was vital that he understood the truth. I'm not religious, so I couldn't tell him we'd see Daddy again in heaven - although I know that's been very comforting to friends who do have a faith.'

Laura also did a lot of screaming and talking aloud to Sam when she was alone, and she encouraged Joseph to do the same. 'You can feel very bad at being angry about the death, but it's natural and necessary to express it. The most frightening times were when I worried that I might project my anger on to Joseph, or even hit him. Nobody seemed to understand these feelings at the time.'

Now, three years later, Joseph talks easily about his father's death. 'He readily tells people that his father died,' says Laura, 'and he discusses with me how unfair it is that he doesn't have a daddy. But I think he has accepted the reality of it and is a happy child.'

SHARING grief with children is a good idea, Dorothy Judd agrees - but this must be done with sensitivity, or there is a danger that the child will be overwhelmed. 'It may be distressing if the child cries and the parent immediately does the same thing. It is sometimes better to comfort the child and cry at a different time, but the parent should let the child see that he or she does grieve.'

A spokesperson at Cruse, the National Organisation for the Widowed and the Bereaved, warns of the dangers when bereaved parents do not display their feelings: 'Sometimes they feel that they ought to protect the child from their grief, and shut off their feelings. But they may also shut them off from the child - who may then feel that he or she is 'losing' the second parent too.'

It is also important that children do not feel so responsible in caring for the bereaved parent that they are unable to let their own feelings show. 'If this does happen,' Cruse explains, 'once the parent has stabilised the child may well exhibit delayed feelings.'

Children need a great deal of affection, holding and reassurance that the death of a parent, however terrible, does not mean that other terrible things are going to happen. It is natural for children not to want to go to school, probably fearing subconsciously that the remaining parent may 'disappear' during their absence. Dorothy Judd suggests that they should have a few days off school, then go back part-time. 'Try to get them back fairly quickly,' she says. 'Maintaining a routine and sense of normality is very important.'

Children who are very shaken and shocked will probably want to sleep with their parent, and may make what seem like excessive demands. She suggests that parents allow these things as far as possible for a while, then slowly try to reassert the old patterns. 'The key thing,' she says, 'is that children feel as secure as possible.'

Recognising that bereaved fathers have particular problems, a group called Exploring Parenthood holds workshops for men. Its director, Carolyn Douglas, explains that many men have not been as involved with the 'nuts and bolts' of children's lives as mothers are - for instance, organising playgroups, buying clothes and arranging visits to friends. It may be difficult for them to get assimilated into mother and toddler groups and other activities where women predominate. 'It can be overwhelming for men to have to face all these matters while grieving and trying to help suffering children,' she says.

Alan Barton's wife died a year ago, leaving him with a son of six and a daughter of three. 'My wife and I had both worked so we had child care set up,' he says. 'But I found it very difficult talking to the woman we left the children with about their disturbed behaviour, which upset her. I felt it would be better for them to have someone in their own home so I went to an agency. I realised I had no idea how to judge whether the girls they sent to see me were good or not. And I realised there were all sorts of things like which were their favourite foods and clothes that I knew nothing about.

'At first it was hell. The children were angry with me because their mother was gone but also because I couldn't get the routine right. But we worked it out in due course and I learnt an important lesson - to talk about my difficulties and feelings with the kids. Even though they are young, I felt they understood in their way. It was a bit like being on a raft at sea; we clung together and struggled for the shore.'

CRUSE holds parent support groups for both sexes and some branches have children's groups. 'The idea is to give children a place to talk, ask questions and relax,' says Janet Johnstone, who runs one such group. 'Bereaved children are lonely, isolated and frightened. They carry a lot of responsibility for parents and siblings and some are fearful for their own death. On top of that, the other parent is now completely different.' Nor are children in this situation helped by people saying things like 'Take care of your mum.'

It is not uncommon for bereaved parents to try to protect their children by keeping information from them. 'But it is very diminishing for children not to understand what has happened,' Janet Johnstone warns. 'They cope much better if talked to honestly. We try to build communication between parents and children through the groups. If parents don't want to hear a child's pain because they can't bear it, it may seem to the child that they don't want to listen because they don't care enough.

'Children can come and express 'bad' feelings, get sad and angry, and hear others do the same. They can learn how others cope or don't cope, and have their experiences validated. Over the course of a year, we see children looking more peaceful, more able to concentrate at school and willing to look into the future.'

PARENTS may find it difficult to seek help for themselves - partly because they do not have the emotional strength to do so, but also because they feel they must concentrate on the needs of their children. Helping them, however, is often best done with support.

Elizabeth Morris - whose husband died three years ago, leaving her with four children aged 10 to 16 - wishes she had sought help at the time. 'I was so caught up in my own grief,' she says, 'that I couldn't really think constructively about the best thing to do. If I'd realised there was specialist help, I would certainly have made the effort to get it. I know now that I needed help in understanding what the children might go through, as well as in helping me deal with my own grief in order to have more to offer them.'

It was not until two-and-a-half years after her husband's death that Elizabeth eventually sought help. Her youngest daughter, then in her mid-teens, had become excessively rebellious, lied consistently and started taking drugs and indulging in under-age sex. In desperation, her mother turned to the Anna Freud Centre, a child psychotherapy centre in north London.

'Frequently a child looks after the parent,' she says, 'and this is the role my youngest took on. After her father's death, people who didn't know would ask how he was and she would say 'He's fine.' But it was clearly important that she should acknowledge his death and talk about it, and be able to show her own distress. She became very quiet and withdrawn, and showed little emotion. Then, when she reached 13, the rebellion began. I didn't associate it with Robin's death, but at the Anna Freud Centre they felt sure she was experiencing a lot of anger at his death and directing it at me.'

Understanding this fact helped a great deal. 'Had I realised earlier,' Elizabeth says, 'I would have tried to get my daughter to work through it. But I felt I had to stand firm about not letting her get away with her bad behaviour, or with the way she seemed to be neglecting herself. At the same time I felt I must keep communication open with her. It is very difficult because, when children have suffered as mine have, there is an inclination to feel you must be endlessly giving - and there's a lot of guilt in that. My counsellor said that the best thing I can do now is get on with my own life and let them know I am all right.'

Organisations offering counselling and support groups: Exploring Parenthood, Latimer Education Centre, 194 Freston Road, London W10 6TT, tel 081-960 1678; Cruse, 126 Sheen Road, Richmond, Surrey TW9 1UR, tel 081-940 4818; British Association for Counselling, 1 Regent Place, Rugby, Warwickshire CV21 2PJ, tel 0788 578328; Anna Freud Centre, 21 Maresfield Gardens, London NW3 5SH, tel 071-794 2313.