Single Fathers Due to Cancer
  UNC Cancer Care

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The information provided in this section is intended to be an overview of important things to understand about how your children may be grieving and ways to help them. This information is similar to what we share with parents when meeting with them in professional counseling.

There is no one best way for a child to grieve the loss of a parent. A parent's death is not something a child should be expected to "get over" and there is no universal timetable for how long a child's grief will last. Each child grieves in their own way and at their own pace. Common behaviors shown by grieving children include:

  • Sadness and tearfulness
  • Anger (sometimes directed at the surviving parents or siblings)
  • Denial
  • Guilt
  • Anxiety
  • Physical complaints (such as stomachaches)
  • Idealizing the deceased parent
  • Relief that parent is no longer in pain (but guilt for having these thoughts)
  • Clinginess
  • Changes in sleeping and eating patterns
  • Poor attention and concentration
  • Poor school performance
  • Talking often about the deceased parent

Your child may show just a few or many of these symptoms and behaviors. Some may be seen immediately, while others may not emerge until much later (during holidays, when returning to school). It is important to know that even if your child is not showing these behaviors, this does not mean that he or she is not grieving. Like adults, some children suffer in more subtle ways and may need to be asked directly if they need help.

When to seek professional help:
There may come a time when your child needs to meet with a mental health professional. When to seek outside help can be difficult to determine, but you know your child best. If you feel he or she is struggling in a way that significantly interferes with key relationships (family and friends) and daily activities, then professional counseling may be necessary.

Your child may need an evaluation and treatment if his or her concerning behaviors persist and intensify over time. Consider the changes in their behavior since the death of your spouse. The following are some behaviors that may warrant seeking professional help for your child:

  • Excessive crying
  • Drop in school performance
  • Onset of frequent bedwetting
  • Excessive clinginess
  • Acting out at home or school
  • Persistent physical complaints with no clear physical cause
  • Drug or alcohol abuse
  • Persistent nightmares
  • Withdrawal from social activities
  • Excessive guilt
  • Thoughts or statements about suicide

The more of these behaviors that your child shows, the more likely it is that he or she could benefit from counseling. Please take seriously any thoughts your child has of harming him- or herself and take immediate action as needed. Talking about wanting to be with Mommy in heaven as an expression of missing her is normal, but if you sense that your child may act on these feelings, seek help immediately.

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