On Saturday, Elizabeth Edwards was laid to rest. Edwards left behind two very young children.
According to the National Cancer Institute, one in four cancer patients have a child younger than 18 and an estimated three million children live with a surviving parent after the death of their mother or father.
Experts say that how Edwards’ two young children (Emma, 12 and Jack, 10) cope will depend on the support they receive from surviving loved ones in the years ahead.
After losing a parent, 85 percent of children may exhibit such symptoms as difficulty sleeping, angry outbursts, worry, depression, bed-wetting, and thumb sucking. After a year, the above behaviors may fade, but other problems, such as lack of confidence and preoccupation with illness, are likely to continue.
Most bereaved children do not show serious emotional or behavioral disturbances. In a recent study by the University of Pittsburgh School of Medicine, children whose parent died have three times the risk of depression than those with two living parents, along with an increased risk for post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD).
Dr. Paula Rauch, a pediatric psychiatrist and expert on families coping with terminal illness said, “It's amazing how resilient children are when they are supported.”
Rauch, founding director of the Marjorie E. Korff PACT—Parents at a Challenging Time—program at Massachusetts General Hospital and author of, Raising an Emotionally Healthy Child When a Parent is Sick. also said, “Things that support a child's resiliency are stability in the home environment, good communication at home, caring adults interested in what the child's experience is and respect for the child's [grieving] timeline."
Many times children won't feel the "enormity" of the loss until they are older. As young adults they may re-experience the pain of their parent’s death during pivotal moments in their lives such as learning to drive, picking out a prom dress or selecting a college.
According to Dr. Ari Brown, a Texas pediatrician and author of "Expecting 411," symptoms of grief include excessive crying, tantrums and regression in behaviors.