Grief and Children of Military Personnel
By Laura Slap-Shelton, Psy.D.
While there has been a fair amount written about the process of grief in children, the process that children of military personnel go through when a parent dies in the course of their service is not as well known. Luckily there is a group, The Tragedy Assistance Program for Survivors (TAPS), a nonprofit group which works in conjunction with the military to help grieving family members of military service people. Not only does TAPS provide resources for grieving families; it puts on a yearly camp for children, TAPS Kids Camp, over the Memorial Day weekend.
Grief for children of the armed forces differs from the grief process of non-military children who loose a parent in several ways.1 First, the loss of the parent is generally sudden and violent. This means that most military children will be experiencing a more complicated form of grief, referred to as traumatic grief. This form of grief often involves elements of Posttraumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) and is more difficult in terms of recovery. [see Traumatic Stress and PTSD Resources].
Second, once a child’s military parent dies, they face an immediate loss of home, school, and friends, because the nonmilitary parent and family are immediately removed from the base, the schools, and the social network in which they have been living. Carroll and Mathewson in their article, Living with Grief: The Military Model for Children and Grief,1 provide an example of a boy whose father was well known on base and whose loss was appreciated by the family’s social network on the base and at his school. But when he entered a public school, where children were not aware of his father’s accomplishments, did not understand military life, and had little experience with grief, he found that it became easier to tell his peers that his parents were divorced and that his father never visited him, than to explain the loss of his father. This is a tragic solution in and of itself, as it involved this child in portraying his father as the type of father who abandons and does not even visit his children, and led this child to feel hollow and disconnected inside. Only when he attended the TAPS Kids Camp did he have an opportunity to share his grief with other children who understood. Thus, the sudden loss of all familiar daily supports and routine creates a significant burden for the family, and for the emotional status of the children who are already coping with the death of their parent.
Further, the surviving parent is under significant additional stress because of their need to move, find a new source of income, and resettle the children, events which in and of themselves are very challenging. As Carroll and Mathewson report1, families in such situations often find themselves in chaos as family roles switch rapidly and unpredictably. For example, he same child who was ‘Daddy’s little boy’, happily emulating his father in a child appropriate manner, may suddenly be thrust into the role of the ‘man of the house’.*
Another difficulty for children of military personnel who die is the very public nature of the initial grieving and mourning period.2 The children may unwittingly become ‘famous’ or ‘celeberties’ in their community as news of their parents’ death appears on television, and community members who did not know their parent pay their respects and offer thanks for their parent’s service to the country. This attention may at first be welcome, but later may interfere with the child’s efforts to process their very personal grief and feelings about their parent. Connected with this issue is the tendency of the community and the children themselves to idealize their parent as a hero and to engage in a kind of hero worship which may lead to difficulties in adjustment to the loss of their parent.2
At the TAPS Kids Camp the volunteers are individuals who have had some role in the Armed Forces, either directly or through marriage. While the children participate in activities the parents also participate in support activities and educational activities. The children are supported in their grief. Tears are welcome. They learn about the emotions of grief, write letters to their lost parent, tell the other children about their parent and listen to stories. One of the more moving and symbolic activities the children do at the camp is the balloon release in which they attach messages to their balloons and watch as the balloons go higher and higher until they are out of sight.1 As with this activity in which a message is sent to the parent, message writing activities help the children to complete unfinished business such as saying thank you or even apologizing. The camp also provides fun and friendship building activities for the children. Most of all the camp and similar experiences allow children to recognize that they are not alone in their experience and to understand their new place in society. As one little girl stated, “I just realized I’m a survivor. So when you learn that and you will, just always remember that.”1
1 Carroll, Bonnie and Mathewson, Major Judy, “Living with Grief: The Military Model for Children and Grief. Tragedy Assistance Program for Survivors (TAPS),
2 Alvarez, Lizette, “After Loss of a Parent to War, a Shared Grieving.” The New York Times, May 29, 2006 pp. A1,A13.
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