Newspaper article St Louis Post-Dispatch (MO)

Early Loss of Parent: Defining Event Author Says Children Feel Terrified, Alone

Newspaper article St Louis Post-Dispatch (MO)

Early Loss of Parent: Defining Event Author Says Children Feel Terrified, Alone

Article excerpt

`IMAGINE that you and two friends are embarking on a trek up the side of an unexplored mountain. You have as your guide a seasoned climber, someone who knows the mountain well, and, as important, someone who understands what it means to embark on such an adventure.

"You are nervous, yet exhilarated; you and your companions feel secure because your guide understands the technical aspects of the mission as well as sensing more personally what it means for each of you to undertake this climb.

"Now imagine that as you round a bend in a particularly confusing part of the ascent, the guide disappears. You and your companions look at one another. There is no one to lead you, no one to help you complete this most difficult and arduous climb. You feel yourself gripped by a feeling of complete terror and aloneness."

With this metaphorical story, says psychotherapist Maxine Harris, you begin to enter the emotional space of a child whose world has been ripped apart - a child whose parent has died.

Harris' book, "The Loss That Is Forever," (Dutton, $24), explores the lifelong impact of early death of a parent on a child. One in 20 Americans experience such a loss, but the ripple effect creates an even larger impact: Many more Americans have a parent, or a spouse's parent, who died early.

Through interviews with more than 60 men and women who lost a parent at an early age, and anecdotes culled from biographies of celebrities and major historical figures, Harris explores how 30, 40, even 50 years after the death, it is still the defining event in their lives.

While death of a parent is difficult at any age, it is entirely different for children, Harris explains. A child does not have the language to begin to make sense of a parent's death. He can no longer believe the world is a safe, predictable place.

Nor does our culture provide much help to people who lose parents, she says. We don't have many rituals, as other cultures do, and it's frowned upon to talk much about the loss.

Think, Harris says, of the death of President John F. Kennedy. "People were pleased at how the children seemed so stoical," with little John-John bravely saluting his father. …

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