How Kids Mourn

THE PAIN NEVER GOES AWAY,'' SAYS Geoff Lake, who is 15 now, and was 11 when his mother, Linda, died of a rare form of cancer. He is only starting to realize it, but at each crucial passage of life--graduation, marriage, the birth of children--there will be a face missing from the picture, a kiss never received, a message of joy bottled up inside, where it turns into sorrow. His sleep will be shadowed by ghosts, and the bittersweet shock of awakening back into a world from which his mother is gone forever. If he lives to be 100, with a score of descendants, some part of him will still be the boy whose mother left for the hospital one day and never came home.

A child who has lost a parent feels helpless, even if he's a future King of England; abandoned, even in a palace with a million citizens wailing at the gates. But children have ways of coping with loss, if they are allowed to mourn in their own ways. Grief can be mastered, even if it is never quite overcome, and out of the appalling dysfunction of the Windsor family, one of the few positive signs psychologists could point to was the sight of William and Harry trudging manfully behind their mother's bier, both brushing away tears during the service. ""There is something very healing,'' says Catherine Hillman, coordinator of the Westminster Bereavement Service, ""about openly sharing pain.''

The death of a parent can have devastating psychological consequences, including anxiety, depression, sleep disturbances, underachievement and aggression. But so can a lot of other things, and losing a parent is actually less devastating than divorce. ""We know that children tend to do better after a parental death than a divorce,'' says sociologist Andrew Cherlin of Johns Hopkins, ""and that's a stunning statistic, because you'd think death would be harder.'' Historically, people have always had mechanisms for coping with the early death of a parent, a fairly common event until recently.

As late as 1900, a quarter of all American children had lost at least one parent by the age of 15. The figure today is about 6 percent. A century ago most people lived on farms and died at home, so children had a fairly intimate, routine acquaintance with death. In the genteel, antiseptic suburban culture of midcentury, death became an abstraction for most American children, something that happened on television (and, in the case of cartoon characters, was infinitely reversible). Growing up as what psychologist Therese Rando calls ""the first death-free generation,'' Americans forgot the rituals of grief so ancient that they predate civilization itself. So the mental-health profession has had to fill the gap. In the last few decades more than 160 ""bereavement centers'' have opened around the country, directed at allowing children to express and channel their grief over the death of a parent or sibling. The one thing they can't do is make the grief disappear, because it never does.

If they could enroll, William and Harry would be prime candidates for bereavement counseling. Experts consider them almost a case study in risk factors for future emotional problems, with the notable exception that, unlike many other children who have lost a parent, their social and financial status is not in any jeopardy. But children who experience ""multiple family transitions''--such as a death on top of Charles and Diana's acrimonious and humiliatingly public divorce--""don't do as well as children who experience just one,'' Cherlin warns. David Zinn, medical director of Beacon Therapeutic Center in Chicago, thinks this may be especially true if there is some causal connection, however remote, between the divorce and the death. It is not such a great leap of logic, for a child, to blame his father for the circumstances that put his mother in the back seat of a speeding car with a drunk at the wheel.

Moreover, the princes are each at an age that has been identified--by different experts--as being at particular risk when a parent dies. An adolescent, such as the 15-year-old William, is already undergoing difficult life changes, says Rabbi Earl Grollman, author of 25 books on coping with loss. ""You're not only dealing with the death of a parent, you're dealing with the death of your own childhood,'' he says. ""You thought you were beginning to know yourself, but now the road ahead is uncertain.'' ""I think it's hardest when you're 9 to 12,'' says Maxine Harris, author of ""The Loss That Is Forever.'' (Harry was just short of his 13th birthday when Diana died.) ""You're not a little kid, so you feel more shy about crying or sitting on someone's lap, but you're also not an adolescent, with all the independence that comes with that.''

Worse yet, in the opinions of most armchair specialists, is the famously reticent and undemonstrative temperament of the Windsor family. ""The way to handle grief is to allow the expression of feelings and the sharing of sadness,'' declares Dr. Dennis Friedman, a psychiatrist who has written a book on the psyche of the British royal family. ""This particular family doesn't allow the expression of grief . . . There has been a pattern of depri- vation of love beginning with Victoria, then gathering momentum, and ending up with Charles. [The princes] are bereaved not only by the loss of a mother who was very close to them, but also for a father who is quite often unavailable to them because of his duties and temperament.''

It will be hardest at night, when the routines of the day wind down and the memories crowd in. Nighttime is when 11-year-old Dennis Heaphy leaves his bedroom and pads down the hall of his home in New York's Long Island to take his place on the floor of the master bedroom. His 7-year-old sister, Catherine, is already sleeping in bed alongside their mother, Mary Beth, who lies awake with her own thoughts of Brian, the husband who died of a brain tumor last January. He was 37, a big, strong man until he got sick. Dennis remembers his father's teaching him to play basketball and the hockey games they would play in the street until 9 o'clock at night. The memories make him miss his father even more, but they are precious all the same. ""My sister doesn't remember my dad so well,'' Dennis says. ""She remembers him from when he was sick, when he would get mad at the littlest things and not act like himself. We have to help her out.''

Children cling to their memories, try to fortify them against the passage of the years. ""They're always afraid they're going to forget how their mother looked, what her voice sounded like, how she smelled,'' says Debby Shimmel, a volunteer at the St. Francis Center in Washington. They paint their memories onto the quilts that are ubiquitous at bereavement centers, little shards of a shattered family, sharp enough to pierce the heart: ""Mommy read Matty bedtime stories.'' ""Leo and Mommy played Candyland.'' Or they draw their parents as angels in heaven. Envisioning what heaven is like for their dads, says Stefanie Norris of the Good Mourning program in Park Ridge, Ill., children sometimes draw a giant football stadium. At the end of each eight-week group session, children hold a memorial for their dead parents; they wear something their parent wore, or perhaps make one of their favorite dishes. This is a more concrete form of memorial than a church eulogy, and a lot more meaningful to a 7-year-old.

The other thing children can't do in church is get angry, but bereavement centers provide for that as well. The Dougy Center in Portland, Ore., the model for scores of bereavement houses around the country, includes a ""splatter room,'' where kids throw violent splotches of paint, an innovation suggested by a child who came to the center after his father had been accidentally shot to death in his home by police. And most centers have some variation of the ""volcano room,'' thickly padded with foam and supplied with large stuffed animals that are periodically pummeled into piles of lint. Barney is said to be the favorite of many teenagers.

This is, as it happens, almost the exact opposite of what was accepted wisdom a generation ago, when children were encouraged to get on with their lives and parents advised not to depress them with reminders of the departed. Lori Lehmann was 6 when her mother died of leukemia, 30 years ago. Lori was dropped off at a neighbor's house for the funeral, and afterward her father packed up all her mother's belongings and took down all her photographs, and no one ever talked about her. ""He was so sad that you didn't feel like you could ask him about it,'' she remembers. Her father died himself nine years later, and now she is trying to reconstruct her parents, her mother especially, from her relatives' memories. ""It's the little things they tell me that I really love,'' she says. ""Like what she cooked for dessert. I don't think my aunts realize how I cling to these things.'' Of course, by not talking to her, her father was sparing his own feelings as well; men of that generation didn't like to be seen crying.

And it's easy for parents to overlook the grief of young children. A child of 6, says New York psychiatrist Elliot Kranzler, is just on the cusp of mastering the four essential attributes of death: that it has a specific cause, involves the cessation of bodily function, is irreversible and is universal. Before that, children may nod solemnly when told of their father's death, and still expect him to be home for dinner. Young children process their loss a bit at a time; they may be sad for 10 minutes, then ask to go outdoors to play. And they are captives of childhood's inescapable solipsism. ""It hits them over the head that they have needs to be met, and one key provider is gone,'' says Kranzler. ""They pretty quickly tell their surviving parents to remarry.'' That isn't callous, merely practical on the child's part; and, of course, when the parent finally does remarry, it is one of the invariable rules of human psychology that the children will hate the new spouse. ""There has not been a person I've interviewed who liked their stepparents when they were children,'' says Harris.

Children mourn piecemeal; they must return to it at each stage of maturity and conquer grief anew. Over the years, the sharp pang of loss turns to a dull ache, a melancholy that sets in at a certain time of year, a certain hour of the night. But every child who has lost a parent remains, in some secret part of his or her soul, a child forever frozen at a moment in time, crying out to the heedless heavens, as Geoff Lake did, when his mother died just days before his 12th birthday: ""Mom, why did you die? I had plans.''