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Changes in Daily Life

The death of a parent brings about inevitable changes in the daily life of the children, and change is another important mediator of responses to loss. Previous studies have indicated a positive effect on bereavement adjustment when fewer daily life changes are experienced by the children (Reese, 1982). The longer changes and disruptions in daily life continued, the greater the impact they appeared to have on the children in the Child Bereavement Study. What were the changes these children experienced?

Four Months after the Death

During the early months after the loss, the most frequent changes concerned chores and household duties, as various roles and responsibilities were reallocated among family members. “We never had to do chores before because mother would be home all day. Now he leaves a piece of paper telling us what to do.” Many of the children (44%) reported changes in daily chores. As might be expected, older children were most likely to be involved in such changes.

The next most frequent change experienced by children was the shifting of rooms and sleeping accommodations. These changes were more likely to occur after a sudden death or when the child had lost a parent of the opposite gender. Preteen girls were most affected in this regard and preteen boys least affected. Several of the mothers shared a bed with their children in the early months after the death. Some children also experienced changes in bedtime hours. “Before, I would go to bed at 9:30; now it’s 11:30 on school nights, and I almost fall asleep sometimes in school. When I say ‘I’m going to bed,’ my father says, ‘Already? It’s early,’ reported a 13-year-old girl. Another teenage girl who was also living with her father said, “If I was, like, up real late doing homework, Mom would make me go to bed and get up early the next day. With my father he’ll just let me stay up til I finish and just go to bed.”

Mealtime changes were more frequent after the death of a mother, clearly reflecting the difficulties many fathers experienced in becoming single parents. However, changes in financial status and in parents’ working arrangements were more likely to occur after a father’s death. In some cases the death of a parent resulted in financial difficulties and children’s allowances being cut. “Before Dad died, I used to get a weekly allowance but now I just ask for money,” said a 13-year-old girl. Some older children need to find employment to help the family financially. This work was usually part-time and did not interfere with school responsibilities.

Overall, we found that children who experienced the greatest number of changes during the first 4 months after the death were those who lost a mother and, for these children, this also resulted in an increase in family arguments. Contrary to our expectations, high change scores during this period were not associated with more emotional/behavioral disturbance, other than an increase in children's health problems.

First Year Changes

Changes continued to increase slightly during the first year of bereavement, but not to a significant degree. During this time, additional children experienced changes in mealtimes, and in bedtime and room arrangements. Many still reported new or different household responsibilities, as well as changes in financial status. “I used to eat supper and then go out but now I help my dad by watching my sister while he cleans up,” a 10-year-old boy told us. It is interesting to note that the death of a mother no longer led to the greatest number of changes as it had in the early months.

It was only now, a year after the death, that changes in the children’s daily routines were beginning to affect their behavior in significant ways. For example, changes in room arrangements and in bedtime hours primarily affected younger children and were associated with difficulties in concentration and with learning problems. These same children also saw themselves as less competent in school than their peers. Additional household responsibilities, especially for girls, reduced the amount of free time and time spent with friends. These added responsibilities, which may have been more graciously accepted around the time of the death, were more likely to be resented as the children moved through their first year of bereavement.

Second Year Changes

During the second year of bereavement, changes in daily life activities continued, but the number of total overall changes was not significantly different from that experienced by nonbereaved counterparts. Half the children, mostly adolescents, had experienced some change in allowance and employment, and many of the same children worried about how their family would manage financially.

Shifts in household responsibilities were fewer and frequently affected girls. It is interesting to note that shifts in chores and household responsibilities were still ongoing 2 years after the death of a mother, but less so after the death of a father. Exemplifying this was a comment by a girl who was 15: “The most difficult thing during these past 2 years is trying to get used to being the only female around the house--cleaning and doing all the chores and everything. When my brothers are fighting…I go in my room and start thinking about my mother and what she would do. I’m still angry at my mother ‘cause she left all this responsibility.” It is of interest that this same girl keeps her mother’s wedding ring hidden in her bedroom. The number of mealtime changes at 2 years were fewer, but these were still greater in number than those experienced by the nonbereaved group. 

Children who reported the greatest number of changes during the second year of bereavement reported more arguments in the family and poorer relationships between themselves and their surviving parent. “I cry when my dad makes me clean up my room. It’s a mess. When she was around, she would help me,” said a 12-year-old boy. Although children with many second-year changes did not report more learning problems, they continued to see themselves as performing worse in school than their peers. They also tended to be highly attached to their deceased parent—dreaming about him or her, feeling watched, prizing mementos, and wanting to behave well for the deceased’s benefit.

Although daily life changes affected the children’s behavior in various ways, the number of changes experienced by the family as a whole, assessed by the FILE (McCubbin et al., 1979) had a more significant impact on the children. This is related, in part, to the fact that a greater number of family changes was associated with parental depression. The combination of a depressed parent, a large number of family changes, and a parent with a passive coping style increased the likelihood of a child experiencing emotional and behavioral difficulties and ending up in the at-risk group.

Worden based his book on a comprehensive research project, The Child Bereavement Study, which he laid out in three useful sections, "Children and their Families in Mourning," "Comparative Losses (includes sibling loss and divorce), and "How We can Help Bereaved Children." The book's intended audience is professional therapists, but it can also provide useful insights for parents, grandparents, teachers and others caring for bereaved children.

pp. 42-44. Excerpted from "Children and Grief - When a Parent Dies" by permission of the author, J. William Worden. Published by The Guildford Press.  Copyright 1996.

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