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Elizabeth Brenner Danziger
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The ax in the tree: When a child’s parent dies

Losing a parent is life-altering: 6 tips for supporting bereaved children
A serious and strong lumberjack chopping wood. (iStock)
A serious and strong lumberjack chopping wood. (iStock)

Next week will mark the 60th anniversary of my father’s death. Sixty years since my grim-faced brother came to tell me I had to come home from a play date where my 9-year-old classmate and I were baking a cake with sprinkles in the batter. I resisted, but he said, “Mom says you have to come home.” I walked into my living room and found my mother sitting composedly on a big armchair. She looked at me and said, “Daddy’s gone to God.” And my life caved in.

The next few years were a blur of outsized responsibilities, hidden grief, and financial insecurity. My siblings and I grew up and made our way through life. But every January, we recall the day our world imploded.

That’s how it is when you lose a parent in childhood. It never goes away. Imagine a young tree standing in a forest. One day, someone comes along and drives an ax into the tree’s trunk. Does the ax kill the tree? No, the tree grows. It may grow to be majestic and high; many more trees may grow from its seeds.

If you stroll through the forest, you might see that tall, green tree, part of the pulse of life. But no matter how much the tree thrives, the ax will be permanently embedded in the trunk. That’s what it’s like to lose a parent in childhood. You grow up. You may get married and have children. You live your life. But the ax is always there.

After many years of inner work, I no longer define myself by my childhood loss. My father’s death was a bad thing – a very bad thing – that happened to me. But my life has been good. Against the odds, I have a happy marriage, amazing adult children, and a bevy of grandchildren. I have a career, friends, and a faith community. As my mother would have said, my life has “turned out.” 

And yet. 

When a friend tells me her son-in-law is on dialysis, I remember that my father died of kidney disease just before dialysis was invented. Could it have prolonged his life?

When my husband does not come home when he said he would and doesn’t answer his cell phone, I automatically dread disaster.

Childhood bereavement has always been a challenge, but I feel a sharp pang for the Israeli children who saw their parents murdered in front of them on October 7, 2023 – the pain is unfathomable. My heart goes out to those who have lost their parents in the ensuing war. For these children, parental loss is a pressing pain.

When I reflect on the period after my father died, I contemplate what I wish the adults in my life had done. I wish someone had encouraged me to talk about my loss. In that era – or at least, in my family – no one talked about the past. We just tried to struggle through the present. I wish someone had talked to me about my father and what his loss meant for me or perhaps encouraged me to realize that things would not always be so bad. I came to that realization myself years later, but a little compassion would have helped a lot. Here are a few other suggestions.

If the Loss Happened Locally

Don’t disappear after the initial loss. During the shiva week after my father died, our house swarmed with strangers bearing platters of dried fruit (which we didn’t like.) When the seventh day ended, the house was empty save my mother, my siblings, and me. Of course, go for the shiva. But stop by or call regularly in the weeks that follow. Let the family know they are not forgotten. 

Invite the family for a weeknight meal. Family dinners drag when a beloved family member is missing. Lift spirits midweek by inviting the family for a meal. 

Invite the children to play.  Sometimes, the bereaved child’s classmates do not know how to relate to him or her. Feeling awkward, they avoid contact. Counteract this by inviting the child for a playdate if they are in your child’s class. If not, offer to take the children to the park or zoo. Give them an outing where they can just be kids. 

If the Loss Happened in Israel

Send memories and condolences. Whether you write an email, a handwritten card, or record a video, let the family know that you are thinking of them even though you cannot be there physically. If possible, share a happy memory of the departed parent.

Send a weeknight meal. You can easily sponsor weeknight meals for a bereaved family through the MEALuim project (https://tzohar-eng.org/mealuim).

Sponsor a family outing. Many widows are struggling financially and might not be able to splurge on a fun outing. You can send money earmarked for entertainment.

~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~

The years following my family’s loss were profoundly painful. The ax in the tree rattled me to my roots.

And yet. 

The same force that drives the tree to grow toward the sun, to reach for life even when it is flawed, that same energy drives me and other orphans on.

Here’s what I wish I could say to children suffering loss: Our lives are not the same as if our parents had lived, but we live and strive toward the sun. Some of us fall into the shade; my prayer is that even they may sense that drive for life that powers even the smallest tree. The tree grows.

About the Author
Elizabeth Brenner Danziger is the author of four books, including Winning by Letting Go (Harcourt Brace: 1985) and Get to the Point! (Random House: 2001). Her work has appeared in many national magazines. She is the president of Worktalk Communications Consulting. She has four grown children and many grandchildren. She has been living an observant Jewish life for 40 years.
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