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Exploring themes of resiliency in children after the death of a parent.

The purpose of the phenomenological and grounded qualitative study in this article was to explore resilient traits of children, aged 9 to 12, who experienced the death of a parent within the past 36 months. The researcher assisted the children in narrating and writing their stories about parental loss and adaptation by posing questions guided by a review of literature framed in an ecological context. Data were coded and analyzed, uncovering themes of resilience. Implications for school counselors working with students who have parental grief experiences are discussed.


The death of a parent creates a period of stress and sadness for surviving children (Figley, Bride, & Mazza, 1997; Myers, 1986; Raveis, Siegel, & Karus, 1999; Silverman & Worden, 1992, 1993; Stambrook & Parker, 1987; Steinberg, 1997; Worden & Silverman, 1996). Multiple ecological factors influence the grief process. The surviving family members, a potential support system for the grieving child, experience altered functioning as they attempt to reorder and adjust to life without the deceased parent (Horwitz, 1997). As the family may be unavailable to facilitate the child's grief process due to its own grief, the bereaved child often expresses his or her sense of loss at school (Charkow, 1998; Healy-Romanello, 1993; McGlauflin, 1998). While there is a rich body of literature regarding childhood grief, a deficit-based view of grieving children as sad, angry, anxious, and disconnected has remained predominate in the literature over the past several decades. However, the ASCA National Model[R] (American School Counselor Association, 2005) advocates working from a strength-based approach. Thus, professional school counselors (PSCs) need to understand how bereaved children narrate their grief story from a resiliency perspective. It is important for PSCs to hear strength-based stories of childhood grief in order to better foster protective factors and promote healthy outcomes for bereaved children.


Research suggests that bereaved children are a vulnerable population, at increased risk for social impairment and psychopathology (Baker, Sedney, & Gross, 1992; Berlinsky & Biller, 1982; Cournos, 2001; Fain-Leslie, 2002; Weller, Weller, Fristad, & Bowes, 1991). Multiple factors, including religious training, life circumstances, cognitive development, and emotional development, affect a child's understanding of death (Stambrook & Parker, 1987). Researchers and counselors must understand childhood grief and loss on multiple levels, including systemic and contextual influences, developmental stages of the child, the child's own grief experience, and school adaptation (Charkow, 1998; Healy-Romanello, 1993; McGlauflin, 1998; Raveis et al., 1999; Silverman & Worden, 1992; Stroebe, Stroebe, & Hansson, 1993).

Various emotions such as shock, guilt, and anger envelop grieving children and their families (Silverman & Worden, 1992, 1993; Worden, 1996; Worden & Silverman, 1996). Children manifest their grief at home, at school, and with their peers. A bereaved child may lash out at well-intended peers who inadvertently upset the child (e.g., by benign banter about a topic other than death) because the child is not capable of isolating intense hurt and feelings of anger. Grief is not isolated; rather it affects transactions and circumstances in every environment.

Numerous investigators have examined personal processes of grief and loss (Cheifetz, Stavrakakis, & Lester, 1989; Cournos, 2001; DeSpelder & Strickland, 1982; Fulton, 1965; Heinz, 1999; Worden, 1996). Research has demonstrated that children who experience parental loss display lower levels of self-esteem and self-efficacy (Worden). Bereaved children may experience depressed states and increased levels of anxiety (Bowlby, 1980; Weller et al., 1991). Children intermittently mourn, confront, and manage the emotional impact of loss in a manner consistent with their cognitive and emotional abilities (Siegel & Gorey, 1994). They mourn according to their current developmental level, and then may postpone further grief work until they reach a new stage when developmentally appropriate mourning will resume. For example, younger children may feel the emotional reverberations of the loss, but not grieve the irrevocability of death until they reach the developmental stage where they see death as final.


The above review of literature highlights the deficit-based approach prominent in the literature regarding parental loss in childhood. However, in recent years there has been a trend toward a strength-based approach in the general psychology and school counseling literature (e.g., Bosworth & Walz, 2005; Gillham & Seligman, 1999; Littrell & Malia, 1992; Sklare, 2005). Researchers focusing on resilience have examined how children survive and thrive in spite of stressful circumstances (Baldwin, Baldwin, & Cole, 1990; Carver, 1998; Fraser, 1997; Howard, Dryden, & Johnson, 1999; Kaplan, 1999; Kimchi & Schaffner, 1990; Luthar, Cicchetti, & Becker, 2000; Werner, 1993, 1994, 2000). Research has indicated that factors such as individual attributes (e.g., intelligence, communication skills, internal locus of control, positive self-concept), emotional ties within the family (e.g., family cohesion), and external support systems (e.g., school, church) foster the ability to cope and thrive in difficult circumstances (Masten & Garmezy, 1985; Werner, 1993).

The resiliency research provides evidence that identifiable protective factors are involved in safeguarding those at risk while promoting successful development. Currently, there is limited information on the specific resiliency factors that bereaved children report in their life story. Furthermore, there is a lack of knowledge and awareness regarding how PSCs can utilize assets and strength-based development to bolster healthy outcomes of mourning children. Consequently, this study explores the resilient characteristics and protective factors of grieving children.

The purpose of this qualitative study was to explore potential qualities of resiliency in children aged 9 to 12 who suffered the death of a parent within the past 36 months. The main research question that guided this study was, "What resilience factors are identifiable in the stories of grieving children?" The participants' stories about parental loss and adaptation were elicited by presenting them with questions guided by a review of literature framed in an ecological context (e.g., grief at home, at school, with friends). Additionally, the children were asked to write a short story about their mourning experiences. The participants' oral and written stories, or biblionarratives (Eppler & Carolan, 2006), were analyzed to explore the children's resilience (Masten & Garmezy, 1985; Masten & Reed, 2002; Walsh, 1998; Werner, 1993, 1994, 2000).


The methodology used in this investigation was qualitative (Strauss & Corbin, 1990), phenomenological (Moustakas, 1994), and grounded (Glaser & Strauss, 1967; Henwood & Pidgeon, 2003). Phenomenological research (Moustakas) attempts to elicit an understanding of parental bereavement at a deep level. Furthermore, this type of research explores grieving children's resilient traits from their own perspectives (Boss, Dahl, & Kaplan, 1996; Holmes, 1998). Underpinning this research approach is the belief that bereaved children, such as the participants in this study, are the experts on their own mourning and can inform researchers about the complexities of grief, including adaptation and resiliency.


A convenience and purposeful sample of 12 bereaved children served as participants. All had firsthand experience of childhood grief and thus offered rich data on the subject (Fetterman, 1998). Themes and patterns in this study emerged after the 12 children were interviewed and wrote stories. The small, purposeful sample is not generalizable to a larger population; rather the intent is to broaden the theoretical understanding of children who experience grief. The type of intensity sampling used in this study (Newfield, Sells, Smith, Newfield, & Newfield, 1996) is intended to sufficiently obtain saturation of themes and meanings among the children's stories (Marshall & Rossman, 2006).

Participants were between 9 and 12 years old and had lost one parent in the past 36 months. Participants were recruited by (a) posting flyers at community bereavement centers and (b) consulting with area school counselors who could act as referral sources. The sample consisted of 7 female students and 5 male students. Three were age 9, 7 were age 10, and 2 were age 12. Eleven of the participants were of European American (White) ethnicity and 1 was African American. Three children's mothers died, and 9 children's fathers died. Six females in the study lost their fathers, and 1 female lost her mother. Two of the male participants' mothers died and 3 of the male participants' fathers died. Time elapsed between the death of the parent and the interview session ranged from 4 months to 32 months, with the average time after the loss being 14.25 months. Types of parent death ranged from sudden and I unexpected loss (including two parental suicides) to death after long-term illness. Nine participants lived in lower-middle-class areas and 3 participants resided in upper-middle-class neighborhoods, as determined by an information sheet that the parents filled out after signing the consent forms.


Individual interviews were conducted either at a community mental health clinic, at the child's school, or in the child's home. After gaining either the parent's or the guardian's written consent, I described the project to the child and obtained verbal assent from the child (Holmes, 1998). After the children agreed to participate in the project, I gathered the oral and written personal narratives.

Participants' stories were gathered in a private room equipped with a table, two chairs, and a tape recorder. Lined paper and a black ink pen were provided. The sessions lasted about 1 hour and were audio-recorded and transcribed verbatim. All sessions were conducted one-on-one with the child, although parents or guardians did have the option of remaining with their child as a non-participant observer. All participants were debriefed after the session, including answering any questions they had and giving them and their legal guardians several referral sources to contact if additional questions arose.

Data Collection

The children's grief stories were elicited through means of questions. A set of core questions was presented to each child; however, specific questions were added or altered during the interviews in order to gain a deeper understanding of the child's unique situation. Core questions included the following: (a) "Where do you live?" (b) "What are some of your early memories with your family?" (c) "How would you describe yourself?." (d) "What was your family like before your mother/father died?" (e) "How did you find out about the death?" (f) "What do you like about your family (surviving parent or siblings) now?" (g) "Who do you talk to when you are sad/happy/scared?" and (h) "What do you think will happen to you in the next year?"

After the bereaved children shared general story information, they were assisted in writing their stories as text. The children were given brief instructions to write what they remembered about their life before their parent died, how they found about the death, their current situation, and what they thought may happen in the future. Except for several sheets of blank paper and a book template with the above directives, the participants were given minimal prompts. As needed, I assisted children in spelling words or let them know that grammar did not matter for this project. If the child appeared stuck, as evidenced by 1 or 2 minutes of not writing, brief encouragement (e.g., "It is OK to write what you think or feel") or a prompt ("What else do you remember?") was offered.

Data Analysis

Data from the interviews and story writing were examined to uncover themes in the participants' stories. Miles and Huberman (1994) suggested that researchers should become very familiar with the data, immersing themselves in the information by reading and rereading the transcripts, notes, and stories. Docherty and Sandelowski (1999) further noted the importance of returning several times to the data, especially when working with children. Constant comparative methods (Marshall & Rossman, 2006) were combined with domain analysis and componential analysis (Fetterman, 1998) to better understand the content of the data.

To understand grief and loss issues from the participant's viewpoint, I soaked in the data (Fetterman, 1998; Miles & Huberman, 1994) by personally transcribing the interviews, coding the data, as well as reading and rereading the transcripts (Docherty & Sandelowski, 1999). Data coding included creating inductive and deductive themes. Deductive themes, or concepts gleaned from the review of literature on both grief and resiliency, included emotions such as sadness and resilient traits such as family support. Inductive themes, or ideas generated from a direct reading of the transcript, included happiness during grieving, hope, and a positive outlook on the future.

The process of grounded theory includes creating a reciprocal loop between data and literature to create emerging theory (Glaser & Strauss, 1967; Henwood & Pidgeon, 2003). In using grounded theory and deductive codes to interpret data, there is a potential risk for skewing the data toward a desired outcome (Glaser, 1992). This bias was minimized by having a team of two school counselors and three interns in a school counseling master's program check the accuracy of the coding. Qualitative research methodologists acknowledge the potential for an agenda in their work, aiming to establish validity and truthfulness in their reporting of data (Lichtman, 2006; Morrow, 2005). This approach suggests that getting a rich description from the participants' points of view is a greater concern than traditional validity standards. Validity was increased by directly quoting the participants, allowing the children's own voices to be heard.


The children's verbal and written grief stories varied from a brief description of the essential facts to detailed accounts. One child never answered in more than a five-word phrase while another gave answers that each transcribed to over a page of single-spaced text. Children's responses included both the events of what happened (as they perceived and remembered) and their emotional reactions. The following describes dominant themes found in the participants' stories.

Range of Emotions in the Grief Stories

Emotive themes included the children's verbal and written descriptions of being sad, mad, scared, and happy--oftentimes feeling these emotions simultaneously. One child reported that he is "sometimes happy and sometimes sad" when he thinks of his deceased parent. A girl stated that she laughs and she cries when she thinks about her father because she misses him and she remembers the fun they had together. A main theme in the literature on grieving children is that they are sad when their parents died (Worden, 1996). A common thread in the participants' narratives echoed this sentiment. One participant stated that "I feel pretty sad." Additionally, one boy stated, "I was very sad.... I was very hurt to hear my dad died because he was like a part of me. ... I cried because I missed him so much." Specifically, one child reported feeling sad when she was alone and another talked about being sad when she went to a daddy-daughter dance after her father died. One girl summarized her current situation by stating that just the fact that her parent died colored her world in sorrow. Some children spoke of wanting to sleep a lot while others reported crying.

In addition to feeling sad, there was a theme of anger in the participants' narratives about the death of their parent. One child wrote that when his father died, he felt "very sad and very mad." A female participant stated, "I feel mad, but I know I shouldn't because it is selfish." Another trend in the stories was that the children expressed general anxiety and a fear of being alone or abandoned after the death of a parent. A boy wrote that he "saw monsters eating" his deceased parent in his sleep. Another child expressed fear that another family member would die. One girl stated that she is scared when she thinks that "me or a family member could catch [stomach cancer]." A boy recounted his fear when his primary caregivers went to the store and did not leave a note. He stated he was frightened because he was unsure of where they were and he did not know if they would return.

In addition to times of sadness, anger, and fear, there was a theme of happiness. One child wrote, "When I think about my dad I feel happy because I love my dad." Two children stated that they are happy when they are not thinking about their deceased parents. They stated that they are doing something instead, usually "arts" or "talking and stuff." Moreover, there was a narrative thread in the participants' stories of coping and moving on after the death of their parent. Within the narratives, there was a common idea that participants have begun their search for meaning and rely on spiritual answers to conclude their stories. In the conclusion of her written story, a girl expressed, "I feel still a little bit sad and still mad (well, make that a lot sad), but I can do my work at school." Another child wrote, "I'm not as sad because I know I'll see him again someday, and we'll have even more good times." Some participants predicted that they will eventually move on from intense mourning. A child stated she will "get over his death a little more." Another child wrote about being "over it" but will "still remember him, and he will be fine." Additionally, one child stated that life is moving on and that he has "gotten used to being without him."

Family Support in the Grief Stories

A trend in the participants' stories included reporting that the surviving parents or caregivers were people they could talk to about grief issues. Responding to the core question, "Who do you talk to ...?" 8 of the 9 participants who lost their fathers responded "my mom." One boy stated that he would tell his mother that he missed his father and that he wanted to see his father again.

Another theme of family support was that siblings were seen as supportive. A girl whose mother died stated that she often talks to her sister, and they eat dinner together nightly while their father is at work. She stated that they typically watch television during supper, but at other times they talk about the death of their mother. Another girl whose father died talked about how her brother is a pest, but she takes care of him by playing with him when their mother is busy and by making sure that water does not get into his ear tubes during bath-time.

Extended Support Systems in the Grief Stories

Grandparents and other extended family members were important characters in the participants' grief stories. Several participants described how extended family members were present when the children learned of their parents' deaths. A girl wrote, "My aunt, uncle, brother, and mother and I made a circle, and my aunt told us about dad's death." For many of the children, the extended family remained active in their lives after the parent's death. One boy continued to reside with his paternal grandparents after the death of his father. A female participant's uncle helped take care of her family after the loss of her father. A boy and a girl both stated that they have cousins who are emotionally close and with whom they have fun.

In addition to familial support, there was a theme of support from others involved in the children's lives. A recurrent thread among the stories was that teachers and friends were important. When asked, "Whom do you talk to if you're sad?" one informant stated, "If I'm at school, I talk to my teacher." One girl stated that she would talk to her teacher but not her friends about being sad regarding the death of her father. Additionally, two other girls stated that they would not talk to their friends. One female participant stated that she would talk to her friends about her father dying. She echoed this in her written account, "I have friends to tell me I am all right, and I don't have to worry now."


It is well documented that children are sad when a parent dies (Becvar, 2001; Bowlby, 1980; Steinberg, 1997; Weller et al., 1991; Worden, 1996), and sadness was a dominant theme in all of the participants' stories. However, the participants' stories appear richer than only a world of sadness. The children in this study reported not only being sad, but also having a full range of emotional experiences. Participants reported that they see themselves as happy, nice, helpful, normal, and fun. Additionally, the participants reported not being completely disconnected from others. There were themes of support from immediate family, extended family, school, and some peers. These children, with their full range of emotions and with helpful support systems, do not seem adequately described by a deficit-based model that focuses only on grief's sadness, anger, fear, and isolation.

These bereaved children saw themselves as able to survive and thrive during grief, and they requested that others see their resilience, strength, and normalcy. After an interview, adding to the core questions, I asked one boy if there was anything else I should know about kids whose parents have died. He replied, "We are normal." He may have been asking for others to sec him as healthy, even within a difficult situation. The strengths of these bereaved children include their abilities to mourn, cope, and develop in the midst of adversity. They reported enjoying what other children enjoy (e.g., playing Game Boy and running around outside), and they were able to recount happy times before and after their parents died. Listening to the voices of grieving children, it is important to see their complete pictures by observing their positive moments, happy times, and resilience while attending to their emotions such as sadness and fear.


There are many school-based programs and interventions for bereaved children (see Glass, 1991; Grollman, 1993; Lagorio, 1993; O'Toole, 1989), including published interventions appropriate for both individual and small group counseling sessions involving art, journaling, and dream work (Charkow, 1998; Healy-Romanello, 1993). However, these guides and curricula do not infuse a strength-based approach into the interventions. The findings of this study suggest that interventions need to foster resilience and positive adjustment as well as respond to feelings of loss and grief.

Infusing a Strength-Based Lens into Individual School Counseling

While conducting individual counseling sessions with grieving students, it is important for PSCs not only to ask about and validate the students' sad feelings, but also to inquire about their strengths. A school counselor may ask, "Who listens to you when you feel sad?" and then design an intervention that builds on a current supportive relationship or help establish a caring mentor in the student's life. Additionally, the school counselor could focus on the student's complete range of emotions including sadness, joy, and concerns. The PSC and student may engage in activities in which they build on positive memories, such as predicting future fun times with surviving family members. It is important for the PSC not to minimize the sad feelings in order to focus on the positive, but rather to reflect and honor both the good and hard emotions that the bereaved student reports.

Leading Strength-Based Small Grief Groups

When working with grief groups in the schools (Moore & Herlihy, 1993), it is important to design activities that process the emotions of loneliness, fear, anger, and sadness while also building on strengths such as positive self-concept, strong cohesion with the remaining caregivers, and an external network of support. Students may draw something their family did for fun before the parent's death and what they like to do now. This may help students focus on the positive and build on current strengths.

For example, after a PSC conducts a school-wide needs assessment (Sink, 2005), he or she may decide to start a small group to address some of the grief issues in the school. As a pre-group assessment, a strength-based PSC could adapt a survey related to grief feelings to afford students an opportunity to indicate feelings such as lonely, sad, afraid, and mad while also creating categories for emotions such as happiness and hope. Additionally, the strength-based PSC could include a brief write-in section that asks, "Who do you talk to when you are sad?" and "What has already helped you deal with grief?."

Group activities could be designed or revised for the group participants to talk about their strengths. For example, group members could make a poster together that illustrates their strengths. Members could draw big ears for being good listeners, big hearts for loving other family members, and dumbbells for being strong during a hard family time. The group participants then could share ideas about how they cope with mourning.

Strength-Based Collaboration to Support Bereaved Children

In addition to supporting school counselors' role in working with the students directly, the ASCA National Model (2005) promotes collaboration with teachers and parents. Some existing literature details programs and interventions designed for PSCs to train teachers and caregivers to be aware of the grieving process, understand developmental stages of grieving, and support students in expressing feelings of loss (McGlauflin, 1996, 1998). These programs also may benefit from adding a component designed to bolster protective factors when educating teachers and caregivers about the grief process. For example, a PSC may collaborate with a teacher to highlight the grieving student's strengths, such as noticing when the student engages in positive self-talk, helping the student form external attachments (such as referring the student to school-based mentoring programs), and communicating to caregivers regarding the student's positive attributes. When advocating with caregivers, it is important that PSCs acknowledge and validate the remaining caregivers' losses and emotions, while encouraging a strength-based view of the student. This may be done by asking the caregiver what the student does well, when the student is less affected by his or her grief and loss, and with whom the student connects well.


Further qualitative and quantitative research is necessary to explore the theme of resiliency within mourning. Studies could be conducted to hear adolescents' descriptions of their protective factors within their grief stories. Additional studies may perhaps compare resilient grief stories across developmental ages. Quantitative studies possibly will validate some of the ideas generated in this study.

A limitation of this project is that the sample only included children from one developmental stage. It is important to hear stories of the resilient factors in older and younger children. Moreover, it would be helpful to expand research samples to include other ethnic minorities and more children whose mothers had passed away. Although attempts were made to recruit diverse voices for the current sample, only one child from a non-White ethnic background participated. Having only one African American included in the sample is a major limitation of this project.

Researchers and school counselors should acknowledge parentally bereaved children's strengths as well as risk factors. Both inform the strategies and interventions used in school counseling programs. School counselors must be aware of and bolster grieving children's positive development as assets will help them cope with grief.

The findings in this study suggest that children dealing with the death of parent experience a range of emotions and feel support from immediate and extended family and from significant others such as teachers and friends. It is important for PSCs to be aware of these protective factors in the lives of the bereaved children they serve. As PSCs begin to implement a strength-based approach to working with bereaved children, it will be important for them to track the outcomes of building protective factors with grieving students so that evidenced-based services may be delivered to children who experience grief and loss.


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Christie Eppler, Ph.D., is an associate professor at Seattle Pacific University, Seattle, WA. E-mail:
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Author:Eppler, Christie
Publication:Professional School Counseling
Article Type:Report
Geographic Code:1USA
Date:Feb 1, 2008
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