Wednesday 28 June 2017

Grieving children: Prince Harry

Prince Harry with Princess Di
Prince Harry with Princess Di

Patricia Casey

Prince Harry has recently been speaking about the impact the loss of his mother, Diana, Princess of Wales, had on him. He was just 12 when she was killed in Paris.

In a frank video recording with Kate Middleton and his brother William, he speaks about the emptiness he felt for many years, about his refusal to talk about his mother or to open up emotionally about the loss. He admitted also to feelings of aggression; he took up boxing to thwart his urges to hit out. Some have hinted that his use of distractions, such as partying, were to numb his emotional pain.

Encouraged by William, he went for therapy and spoke of the tremendous benefit it has been to him.

He said: "I always thought to myself, what's the point of bringing up the past? What's the point of bringing up something that's only going to make you sad? It ain't going to change it, it ain't going to bring her back," he said. "And when you start thinking like that, it can be really damaging."

Statistics are hard to come by, but the Childhood Bereavement Network in Britain estimates that in 2015, 23,600 parents died in the UK, leaving around 40,000 dependent children under the age of 17. By the age of 16, it is calculated that almost 5pc of young people will have experienced the death of a parent.

And the emotional toll is immense. Not everybody suffers as Harry did, especially if their other parent and the extended family understands the child's emotional needs. The Royal family, not noted for their emotionality, came in for public criticism at the time of Diana's funeral, culminating in the Queen breaking her silence and addressing a country convulsed by grief.

Our understanding of childhood grief and its long-term ramifications are better understood than in the past, when it was assumed that children did not experience grief, or that it didn't have a lasting impact on them because they forgot. Children under the age of two have no conception of death but do respond to separation by becoming very fretful. Under the age of five, there is little concept of the permanence of death, and thereafter, this awareness increases.

Parental loss is not always through death. It occurs when a parent deserts the family, or when a relationship breaks down and the child becomes a pawn in the access dispute often losing contact with one of the parents - often the father. But loss through death is the most final. And if not handled properly in childhood, there is clear evidence that it can lead to long-term emotional and interpersonal difficulties.

In my professional life, I have treated adults whose mental health problems were related to the loss of a mother, or sometimes their father, at a young age. In some instances, the last time the child saw their mother was when she was rushed to hospital with a sudden or serious illness, never to return home or be seen again by the child. Sometimes the child was not allowed attend the funeral. In other cases, the child was misinformed that their parent had run away, only to discover the sad truth years later.

Those who are bereaved of their mother in childhood speak of missing the unconditional love that only a mother gives; her warmth and her cuddles no longer embrace the child and the place called "home" is changed irrevocably. The wisdom and guidance that this role model provides at each stage of her child's development is now absent.

One of the ways of anaesthetising oneself emotionally is to misuse substances, and alcohol has a prime role in this for many.

Difficulty forming close relationships is another problem as the bereaved person fears the loss of that new relationship too. Relationships are short-lived, devoid of love and, often, they are sexual only.

Inadequate grief is a risk factor for the development of depressive illness later in life. And failure to listen to or answer their questions in age- appropriate terms can result in anger at what is, to the child, an incomprehensible loss.

But all is not hopeless, and fathers, older siblings, grandparents and the extended family do a tremendous job, for the most part, in trying to fill the vacuum that exists. And in so doing, circumvent later mental health difficulties in tragically difficult circumstances. But it requires skill as well as common sense.

When confronted with a child bereaved by the loss of a parent, advice on handling this should be accessed. Barnardo's has a very helpful booklet on coping with bereavement in children and adolescents as has the HSE.

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