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When a Parent Dies
A Review of Two Books... and Discussion
Istar Schwager, Ph.D.

There’s been little written about how a child experiences the loss of a parent. Recently two people whose talent I respect, Randi Hacker, a former colleague and Patty Dann, a writing mentor, both published books that look at a parent’s death from a child’s perspective. Attitudes about how to cope with the death of a close friend or family member have been changing, and “sensitive honesty” is now considered helpful rather than harmful to children.

When Patty Dann’s husband was diagnosed with a terminal brain tumor, she looked for ways to explain his condition to her young son. In “The Goldfish Went on Vacation: A Memoir of Loss (and Learning to Tell the Truth about it”) she chronicles her husband’s decline and her son’s response. She discovered that Jake, when confronted with the truth in a supportive and sensitive way, was better able to face the reality of loss than many adults. His forthright questions reflected his child’s concrete thinking, and he held onto tangible keepsakes, for instance sleeping with the tape recording of Curious George his father had made for him in Dutch.

Randi Hacker writes about a father’s death from a teenager’s perspective in her young adult novel, “Life As I Knew It.” Basing her story on the experiences of a Vermont neighbor, Hacker describes how a daughter copes with her father’s debilitating illness and eventual death. Called on to be a sometime caregiver for her once robust dad, Angelina struggles with typical adolescent angst, at the same time she’s being catapulted into a more mature awareness of the difficult realities of life.

Research supports telling the truth to children. That was why, when actor Will Lee died, Sesame Street didn’t substitute another actor to play Mr. Hooper or write the character out of the script. Many families wrote to say that they found the episode helped them talk to children about a more personal loss. I worked on Sesame Street at the time, and our decision to talk about death simply but honestly was groundbreaking, and considered daring. The messages were: “Mr. Hooper died,” “He’s not coming back” and “We will miss him.” On air, Big Bird and others found ways of commemorating Mr. Hooper’s life with drawings and reminisces. The New York Times recently referred to that episode as a “television touchstone” (December 4, 2006) since it paved the way for responsible honesty in confronting once taboo topics.

A child whose parent is ill or has died often feels isolated, powerless and alone. The surviving parent may be wrapped in grief, and while friends try to be helpful, it is hard for them to comprehend the loss. Unlike a sudden death, which leaves much unsaid, when a parent’s death follows an illness there are opportunities to say goodbye. A study of children’s reactions to the chronic illness and death of a parent, reported in the Australian Journal of Advanced Nursing, found that children who have experienced a parent’s death must draw on inner strength, which may ultimately result in greater self-esteem.

To read an excellent study on how children cope with a parent’s death of cancer, conducted by Grace Christ, a bereavement expert affiliated with Columbia University, go to

For suggestions about how to explain death to young children go to


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