Children, even those beyond the age of magical thinking, can feel tremendously guilty after their mother has been diagnosed with cancer or has died. They may feel they caused her illness or death, or that they didn’t spend enough time with her, appreciate her while she was alive, or spoke angrily to her before she died. They may feel guilty for enjoying life or having fun with friends when they “should” be feeling sad. They may feel guilt over the anger they feel at their mom for dying. Explain that their feelings are normal and that their actions are not an indication that they didn’t love their mother. Give them plenty of opportunities to talk.
This is a role reversal where a child takes on tasks that would normally fall to an adult. While there may be some need for additional responsibilities such as helping with dinner, adult tasks such as worrying about finances or taking care of younger siblings can put overwhelming pressure on a child. Avoid saying things like, “you’re the woman of the house now” or, “it’s your job to take care of your dad and your siblings.” Give grieving children permission to have fun and be kids and ensure they know it’s not their job to “replace” their mother.
Grief isn’t just emotional – like any kind of extreme stress, it can also manifest itself physically. Children may complain of stomach pains or headaches, tiredness or sensitivity to noise. Chronic conditions such as asthma may be aggravated.