First there was the tragic news that Whitney Houston had been found dead in her hotel room. Immediately my thoughts went to her teenage daughter, Bobbi Kristina, knowing from having worked with kids who have lost a parent just how difficult the road ahead would be for this young lady.
Then it was announced that Bobbi Kristina had been rushed to the hospital in the aftermath of her mother's passing. My heart goes out to this young woman, and I can only hope that those in her immediate circle will be there for her in the ways she needs -- the same wish I have for any child who loses a parents, whether the death is sudden of after a prolonged illness.
I offer this advice to those who find themselves in the impossible position of trying to care for Whitney's daughter, or any child or teen whose parent has died:
Expect her to move through the stages of loss, over time, including:
- Denial: a sense of disbelief, a forgetting that Mom isn't here.
- Anger: looking for someone to blame, or a place to put the overwhelming anger at feelings of abandonment and sadness
- Bargaining: the notion that the death might somehow be reversed if circumstances unfolded differently
- Depression: appropriate sadness; this is an essential stage, but those caring for Bobbi Kristina, or any child who has lost a parent, need to ensure that sadness doesn't spiral into depression
- Acceptance: down the road, with proper care and support, there is great sorrow at the loss, but a sense of having come to terms with it
Prop her up gently and patiently. The initial shock of losing a parent is impossible to digest. Rather than hearing words like, "She's in a better place", or "It was her time", she may simply need to be held and comforted. Tears, and still more tears, will spill, or she may vent her emotions with anger and rage. Someone needs to sit with her who can handle so much sorrow and keep her from holding her feelings inside.
Make sure she stays healthy. Provide comfort food, try to make sure she gets some sleep, and keep her immediate world quiet and safe.
After the initial shock, try to stick to familiar, comforting routines. The more things feel familiar, the less painful it will be for young Bobbi to stay present with her grief.
Pay attention to signs and signals that could suggest she isn't okay, whether it's an inability to get out of bed, severe depression or anxiety, substance use, or even the appearance of being unaffected, which would suggest numbness and feelings buried because they feel too unmanageable. I usually recommend professional counseling at some point to help a youngster manage grief if there is no one in the family who can help her cope.
My heart goes out to Whitney's daughter and loved ones, and to all those children who have lost a parent and are stumbling through the dark as they face an indescribable loss. I hope that those of us who know a child who has lost a parent offer whatever comfort they can.
HuffPost's Parent Coach, Susan Stiffelman, is a licensed and practicing psychotherapist and marriage and family therapist. She holds a Bachelor of Arts in developmental psychology and a Master of Arts in clinical psychology. Her book, Parenting Without Power Struggles, is available on Amazon. Sign up to get Susan's free parenting newsletter.
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