A Mother Guides Her Bereaved Son’s Path to Resilience

Mother guides her bereaved child
Irwin Sandler

By: Irwin Sandler
Research Professor, Arizona State University REACH Institute, Department of Psychology

How does a child survive, and even thrive, following a traumatic loss?

Research shows that most children go on to lead fulfilling lives following one of the most traumatic experiences of childhood, the death of their parent. How? And what resources promote resilience in bereaved children? The New York Life Foundation’s beautifully illustrated children’s book series, Kai’s Journey, provides insight into one vital resilience resource for bereaved children: their bereaved parent.

The third book of the series, The Fishless Lake, features Kai’s mother as a beautiful example of a parent promoting her child’s resilience. She helps him stay connected with his deceased father and, at the same time, strengthens her own positive bond with her son. Scientific research indicates that the positive effect that Kai’s mother has on Kai’s grief journey is not simply part of a lovely short story.

Several studies have found that the quality of parenting that children receive after a death is one of the most powerful predictors of resilience in bereaved children.

Our own research during the past 30 years has taught us a great deal about the power of parents to support their grieving children. We’ve even developed a program that teaches parents and caregivers practical tools to help build resilience within their families. These tools help bereaved children deal with their grief and stressors in their lives so they can go on to lead healthy, satisfying lives. 

This program’s Five Building Blocks of Resilient Parenting for Bereaved Families include:

  1. The parents’ own self-care
  2. Strengthening their positive bonds with their children
  3. Listening to encourage their children to share more
  4. Effective family rules, and
  5. Supporting their children’s coping

Children who’ve participated in our program experience less distressing grief and lower levels of mental health issues years later. Our research shows that the quality of their parenting as they grieved was a key contributor to the benefits these children gained. With support from the New York Life Foundation, we will be able to train people who work with bereaved families to bring this program to the broader public.

Remarkably, the tools we teach also appear in children’s literature; you just have to look for them. Kai’s Journey offers a fine example that’s in the background, but always within sight: Kai’s mother practices the building blocks of resilient parenting! Her quiet role comes into focus in The Fishless Lake. She’s a good listener and notices the nonverbal cues Kai shares about missing his father. She honors Kai’s desire to hold onto the positive memories of his father by taking him to the favorite fishing spot where Kai and his dad spent time together—and never caught a fish. She doesn’t make the mistake a lot of us might—talking about the fish they didn’t catch, or wondering why. Instead, she focuses on just being there, so they could laugh and enjoy each other as she and Kai remembered his father. As they share sweet memories, they become more connected to each other and to Kai’s dad.

As I read this story, I couldn’t help but think about Kai’s mother. She made supporting her grieving son look so natural and easy to know just the right thing to do. She listened to Kai’s feelings and helped him recall fond memories of his father. But I have heard stories from hundreds of parents and caregivers that show that it’s anything but easy to parent a bereaved child. It’s especially hard when you’re grieving yourself, struggling to keep your family afloat, or locked down at home in a pandemic. 

How do you take care of yourself so you can maintain the energy to listen attentively to your child’s feelings? How do you find the time to fit positive, simple and enjoyable activities with your children into your hectic life? I like to think that the programs we’ve developed can help parents find answers to these tough questions—and resilience of their own.