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Children Differ From Adults in Coping with Terminal Illness

Review summarizes recent research aimed at helping children cope with a tragic loss

THURSDAY, July 27 (HealthDay News) -- Children demonstrate distinct, age-dependent differences in how they grieve for dying parents, which can help health care professionals understand and support them during and after a parent's terminal illness, according to a review article in the July/August issue of CA: A Cancer Journal for Clinicians.

Adolph E. Christ, M.D., of Kings County Hospital in Brooklyn, N.Y., and a colleague summarized research findings that shed light on how children experience a parent's terminal illness and death, and how they mourn and return to a previous level of functioning. They described each of these phases as they were experienced by 87 children in three age groups: 3 to 5 years, 6 to 8 years and 9 to 11 years.

The researchers found that children mourn differently than adults do, with the youngest befuddled and repeatedly questioning the deceased parent's whereabouts. The 6- to 8-year-olds tend to be highly emotional and to blame themselves. And the oldest require detailed explanations and tend to benefit from assisting in the caretaking of the parent. The authors also identified significant moderating and mediating variables that affect a child's recovery, which can be the focus of intervention.

"Many physicians will not have direct contact with family members other than their adult patients and their spouses," the authors write. "Families have been found to benefit from consultation with a social worker or psychosocial professional during periods of high stress and expected loss."

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