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Where Is My Mommy?
by Mary Kilgore, MSW and Mitchell Kilgore, MSW

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Mitch Kilgore Understands Abandoned Children's Grief

Mitchell Kilgore

Being abandoned by a parent can create a wound that never heals.

Mitch Kilgore, co-author of Where Is My Mommy?, has first-hand experience with this. Besides dealing as a single father with his own child's anxiety, Kilgore works with middle- and high-school students who struggle with stress, anger, sadness and unresolved grief over the loss of one—and sometimes several—parent figures.

The healing process is a long one, and there are no short cuts, warns Kilgore, a school social worker in upstate New York. It is also important to recognize, and empathize with, a child's sense of being abandoned, even when the parent did not choose to leave. Another issue is guilt. When a parent or caregiver dies or when children are separated from a parent because of incarceration, mental illness, neglect or abuse, a child will always feel to blame at some level.

"This sense of blame becomes most apparent when a child moves from the denial to the anger stage," explains Kilgore, referring to the stages of grieving death that Elisabeth Kubler-Ross identified. "Understanding these stages is key to understanding the grieving and healing process in children for any significant loss."

Adults sometimes overlook the significance of a child's loss and the child's need to grieve. Most of us acknowledge death of a family member as traumatic, but the changes in daily life caused by a divorce or a parent's chronic or terminal illness or imprisonment sometimes are more troubling to a child than adults appreciate. Similarly, when a child is moved to a foster family or group home, or moved from one such situation to another, there's a sense of loss, even when parents were abusive or neglectful or the foster situation inappropriate. Besides the grief that's caused by separation from parents, siblings, extended family, pets and familiar setting, a child may mourn the loss of a supportive teacher and child-care provider.

Because children grieve differently than adults, adults may not recognize the intensity of the grief.

"Children tend to pass quickly through each stage of grief, revisiting each one often, and without direct intervention, kids are unlikely to heal completely," Kilgore continues. "Kids need to talk about what happened before the feelings become buried or misdirected."

When this educator says "misdirected," many others will say "misbehavior."

"Acting out can become a tactic to avoid dealing with the loss," Kilgore explains, "and then often the family, the school, and the police only react to the misbehavior."

Ideally, parents or caregivers will help children express their grief immediately, but some adults will be overwhelmed with their own grief, uncomfortable with the topic or concerned about further upsetting the child. As soon as possible, however, a child's grief needs to be confronted by following three principals. These, says Kilgore, are awareness, understanding and support.

  • Awareness. The surviving or custodial parent and all caregivers need to be aware of the child's development level when selecting ways to discuss grief, and in understanding how the child may respond. Adults concerned about a child's actions and attitude must also remember, as the author says, that "all behavior is caused by something." Acting out of any kind is prompted by a need, and in this case, the need may be sorrow.

  • Understanding. Understanding the child's grief does not mean that bad behavior should be excused, Kilgore emphasizes. "It's never okay to hurt anyone," he reminds, "and it's important to hold even a sad child accountable for his behavior." It's normal for children of all ages to test limits, and it's especially typical of a child who fears that he may also be abandoned by those now caring for him.

  • Support. Every child needs unconditional love for self-esteem to thrive, and children struggling with feelings of abandonment have fragile self-esteem. To counter their sense of being unlovable, they need daily reassurance and emotional support, says Kilgore.

For more information, contact the Parenting Press publicity department at (800) 992-6657, ext. 105 or (206) 364-2900, ext. 105, or email our Publicity Coordinator.