By Helen Fitzgerald, CT
To fully understand what children
go through when a parent is assigned to a war zone, we need to look
at the nature of grief. Grief is experienced not only when a loved
one dies, but whenever a significant loss occurs.
Because childhood is so fleeting, important phases of a child’s
life may have to pass without the companionship of a father or
mother who is fighting a war far away. The loss felt by the child —
the absence of nurturing, guidance and role modeling — is a form of
grief. Like all grief, it needs attention from the parent still at
home or from another family member.
To the unique type of grief of the military child, we can add two
more burdens: constant anxiety about what might be happening to the
parent, and fear of the unknown. It may be hard to reassure a child
about the welfare of a parent in the war zone, but, as the story
below demonstrates, there are things that can be done to answer
some of the other common fears.
After the death of her husband, a young widow began to observe
anxiety, agitation and sleep disturbances in her children. One day
they startled her with this question: “What would happen to us if
you died?” At first, she simply said, “Don’t worry, nothing is
going to happen to me.” She then realized she couldn’t be certain
of that, so she said, “I am going to do everything I can to stay
safe and healthy but, just in case I did die, who would you want to
live with?” The children named a favorite aunt in another state.
Then they asked, “But how would we get there from here?” The mom
outlined a plan, rather like a fire drill, for how the children
would function if an emergency happened. Thus reassured, the
children began to sleep better and to show fewer anxieties. They
had a plan “B,” and that eased some of their fears.
If you are a military parent holding down the home front, you might
want to consider having a similar conversation with your children.
Talk with them about what your plans would be if your spouse is
transferred, is hurt, or dies. Would it mean moving away somewhere?
Would you have to get a job, or change jobs? Would there be changes
in school plans? Children do not like uncertainty, so talking about
such details could help them put some of their fears to rest.
When a parent leaves on a war mission, the remaining family members
often struggle to regroup and set up new routines. Roles change. As
the home-based parent, try to be sensitive to the difficulties that
your children may have when daily routines and schedules
While your spouse is away and you’re playing the role of a “single
parent,” try to set aside a few minutes each day just for “talk
time.” Dinnertime can be a good time to bring everyone around the
table and have this comforting ritual. You may use this gathering
of family members to ask questions, share thoughts and feelings and
find out about everyone’s fears and concerns.
If you find that one or more of your children is experiencing
persistent anxieties, you might look into the availability of
support groups. This type of group is a safe place where children
can share anything and can feel connected to other children with
the same concerns. It is always comforting to learn that others
worry about the same things you are worried about. Your spouse’s
military organization may have such groups, or you may find help at
your children’s school, church or local mental health center. With
the help of a professional, you might even start one on your
It’s also a good idea to keep in consistent contact with your
children’s school to see how your children are doing. School
counselors, teachers and nurses may discern behavior changes that
you need to know about.
The following tips may be helpful:
• Stay physically close to your children. Hugs and cuddles are in
• Be available if your child panics and needs reassurances that you
• Limit your children’s exposure to grim news and pictures on
• Keep communication open and be a good listener.
• Talk about feelings and provide outlets for expression: drawing,
writing and talking.
• Share your own feelings and give your children some ideas about
how they can help you.
• While there is plenty to worry about, keep your fears for other
• Ask your children if they hear words that they don’t understand
and explain them.
• When your children ask difficult questions, it’s OK to say you
don’t know the answer.
• If a child asks a question that is difficult to answer, simply
say: “That is a really good question. Let me think about it for a
while.” Be sure to get back to them later when you have had a
chance to think it through. You could also ask the child what he or
she thinks is the answer. This may lead to a good discussion.
• Watch for physical symptoms or unusual behavior such as angry
• Maintain daily routines as much as possible.
Visit American Hospice Foundation's
Grief at School
page where you will find materials to help
address children's grief.
Military Kids: Responding to Their Grief article was originally
published on the American Hospice Foundation
After a Tragedy: What Kids Can Do
How Can We Respond to the Grief of Children?
The Physical Stress of Grieving
Also by Helen Fitzgerald:
Helping a Grieving Parent
Writing a Condolence Note to a Grieving Child or Adolescent
Helping Your Bereaved Friend
Helping Children Through Grief
Helen Fitzgerald is a Certified Thanatologist, author and
lecturer. Her books include
The Grieving Child: A Parents' Guide,
The Mourning Handbook and
The Grieving Teen. She has appeared
on the CBS Morning Show and the NBC Today Show and was previously
the director of training for the American Hospice Foundation. You
can ask Helen a question about dealing with grief and loss by
Ask Helen on the American Hospice Foundation website.
Image credit: Patryk Chochman/StockXchng