People say kids are resilient and can bounce back when tragedy strikes. This story turns that notion on its head and shows why kids must get therapy when a parent dies.
Frankly, I hadn’t planned to write about this topic.
As he described his experiences following the death of his mother at the age of 8, my father came instantly to mind. He was 12 when his father fell to his death at the Sparrows Point Shipyard in 1944.
Both Matt and my dad got stuck.
They froze in time.
They didn’t navigate the stages of grief as described by Swiss psychiatrist Elisabeth Kübler-Ross:
But in the end, one ultimately recovered due to an insightful counselor and the other did not…a case study on why kids need therapy when a parent dies.
Matt’s Grief Journey
Although Matt ultimately accepted his mother’s death, it took him 20 years to get there.
What he hadn’t realized until years later is that a traumatized boy took the reins at the precise moment he learned of his mom’s tragic death in a motorcycle accident. From that point on, the child set the rules: don’t fail or disappoint. Avoid what hurts. Don’t get in trouble.
“I was afraid of not being good enough, and that someone would walk out on me.”
But Matt’s rules—the bargain he struck to navigate the hurt—didn’t fix anything. Anger in his teen years led to depression and denial. “I’d sometimes think that my mother was just in witness protection and would someday come back,” he said.
And because of his unresolved grief, he spent his youth and early adulthood playing the people pleaser. He took the safe route only to find himself depressed, anxious. Unfulfilled.
He eventually saw a therapist, who after only one month of counseling, said, “I figured it out, Matt. You realize what you’re doing, right? You’re making all your decisions based on the 8-year-old version of you.”
These rules were fine for a kid, but the damage came when those rules continued to rule a grown man.
“It took 20-plus years to uncover that,” Matt said. “The impact of losing my mother so young affected all my decision making. Therapy is what helped me close the door on grieving my mother.”
Dad’s Grief Journey
So much has changed in the intervening years. Men of my dad’s generation didn’t go to therapists. Furthermore, they didn’t cry or openly discuss their hardships either. That was just the way it was. I loved him all the same.
But he certainly struggled on the day his father died. I don’t know who told him that “big boys don’t cry” or that it was “God’s will that his father died.” All I know is that he slid down the wall and started rocking—a sign of extreme mental distress—when he got the earth-shattering news.
If those words hadn’t been spoken or if society hadn’t viewed the need for grief counseling as a weakness, I wonder if my dad would’ve been different. I say this because of something my mother told me.
“Your dad never talked about his father,” she said. “He didn’t want to talk about a lot of things. We never had deep conversations… He was a hard person to know. A lot of people said that. But once I overheard him say he was mad and never forgave his father for dying.”
Apparently, he was mad at God too. My dad never went to church unless forced because of a wedding or funeral.
Although I’ll never be able to ask because my dad has since passed, I believe he got stuck. He never moved past the anger. And in his attempt to avoid potential loss and pain, he kept his deepest thoughts to himself, and kept those who loved him at arm’s length.
Acceptance, the Final Step
Two men. Two outcomes. A cautionary tale about why kids need therapy when a parent dies.
While my father walled off his emotions, Matt put his in clearer focus.
“I’m doing things that I actually want to do or am driven to do,” he said. “This is my new path…for my mother, my family, my friends, and perhaps more importantly, that 8-year-old whom I never allowed to rest.”
Matt, who currently works as an online university instructor, launched “The Life Shift Podcast” more than a year ago. His goal is to transition into full-time podcasting and content development. You can hear his full story in this episode of his podcast.
Also, my short story, “Robert’s Prayer,” is based on the events following my grandfather’s death. You can pick up your free copy at “The Store.”