How do you help children to cope with the loss of their parents?

Some children suffer from depression, hopelessness, anxiety and may, in the long run, pay the ultimate price when they suffer mental breakdowns. PHOTO/NET

What you need to know:

When children lose both parents, they often become second-rate children in their relatives’ homes. They are taken to cheap schools and made to do all the house chores. They are not heard and are often mistreated.   

“My parents died in a motor accident when I was three. I was the youngest and the favourite child of my father (some relatives told me so) among the five of us. When school time came, I was taken to boarding school at that age and I was in boarding school, until I finished high school.

In some way, I think I have never recovered. Many times when I sit quietly alone after all the drama we call life. I wonder how life would be with my parents alive. It feels to me like staring down a rabbit hole. It is painful,” Edina says.

It can be a world-shattering experience growing up parentless. No one plans to lose their parents, but life happens. For some, luck throws them into extended families or orphanages or adopted families, which offer good emotional, financial, and family support. But for many others like Edina, life becomes hard to navigate.

Diseases such as HIV/Aids, malaria, and tuberculosis are among Uganda’s top five causes of death despite interventions by government to reduce the figures. According to a WHO World Malaria Report December 2022, Nigeria, DRC, Uganda, and Mozambique account for nearly half of all malaria cases, globally. Some reports indicate that in Uganda, one out of every seven children is an orphan due to HIV/Aids. In 2021, this disease claimed 13,000 adults aged 15+ according to some reports seen by this writer. 

In 2019, the UN Economic Commission for Africa revealed that Uganda and Cameroon are among the highest affected countries by road traffic deaths in Africa.  For Uganda specifically, out of 100 road crashes, 24 people die. This is consistent with the recent Annual Crime Report 2022 of Uganda, where it was reported that out of every 100 crashes in 2022, 22 people died. 

Economic effects such as poverty

 Parentless is most likely to come along with poverty. When children, especially those who are already poor lose a breadwinner parent, they are likely to become poorer as they cannot be able to go to school or afford the basic necessities of life.

Rise in child labour and child-headed families

Some children assume adult responsibility of taking care of their siblings and relatives. Imagine a child who should be at school at 10 years being out there fending for him or herself and taking care of others and paying bills. This may result in mental, emotional and physical damage to the child leading to probably early death.   

Psychological effects

Some children suffer from depression, hopelessness, anxiety, and somatic complaints and if they manage to repress or suppress these emotions (which is not a good coping mechanism) they may, in the long run, pay the ultimate price when they suffer mental breakdowns.      

Social effects

 If children lose both parents and they are young and many, they may be separated and taken on for care by relatives. This is good social support. But more times than not, these children often become second-rate children in their relatives’ homes. They are the ones who are taken to cheap schools and made to do all the house chores while the children of the house do almost nothing. They are not heard and respected and are often mistreated.   

Sexual exploitation

Orphaned children are more likely to be sexually exploited than those with parents. Some of this exploitation happens at the hands of their adult caregivers or those around them because they have no one to defend or guide them. This was the case with Sheila. “I was very young and vulnerable. It was aunt’s house boy who molested me and I could not resist because he was older and physically stronger coupled with the fact that I was almost like a maid in my aunt’s home. I had no say, I just let it be. It was traumatic. I am 20 years older now and thankfully free from that guilt and pain.”

Measures to help such children cope with loss

A child may not prevent the death of their parent but the effects can be minimised and this is how:  

Extended family

Some people do not know how to respond to a person, especially a child, who has suffered an early parental loss, so they say anything that may hurt the child further. Recognise and validate children’s feelings and fears and affirm them, thereby giving them some skills of positive adaptation, rather than denying them presence or expression.

They can listen to them and be a safe space for them to express how they feel. The affected child needs to know it is okay to grieve. Such a child may or may not strictly follow Kubler-Ross’s stages of grief--denial, anger, bargaining, depression, and acceptance—but they may grieve and the people around them need to be careful to let them go through their unique individual grieving process.  

Manage unexpected behaviour

Children may also display queer behaviour such as excessive anger, guilt, unhealthy eating habits, poor self-care, alcohol and drug use, and excessive fear of darkness, but the adults and caregivers around them need to know and understand them and handle them with compassion knowing that this is a phase that will pass with time so they should allow the process and give them time to adjust. 

Provide financial support

 For those children who may be deprived in economic terms after the death of their parent, family members, and other caregivers can support them financially to cope with life by providing for them. It does not take a truckload of money to help someone else less fortunate.

Professional help

Some children who lost parents early say people go to the funeral, grieve with them for a while, and disappear back to their homes and they are left to manage alone. “Of course, you do not expect people to stay with you all the time and life must move on, but I wish we had counselling services, where people who grieve can go for long-term help,” suggests Aisha, who lost her mother at five years.