Policy Resource

Honoring the Fallen and Those They Leave Behind

May 18, 2012

On this Memorial Day, remembrances in the media frequently have featured an iconic photograph of a young widow curled up on an air mattress beside her fallen husband’s casket, a Marine solemnly standing guard nearby through the night.

As our nation pauses to remember those who paid the ultimate sacrifice on behalf of freedom, this photograph calls us to reflect as well on the sacrifices and losses faced by military families and the impact of the loss of a parent on young children. For adding to the poignancy of this image is the fact that the young widow is also pregnant with their first child. Her baby would become one of the nearly 5000 children who have lost a parent in the Iraq and Afghanistan wars. The Tragedy Assistance Program for Survivors (TAPS) reports that nearly 6500 military personnel, many of whom were parents, have died in these wars since 2001. (Tragedy Assistance Program for Survivors (TAPS) 2012)

With almost half of all military children under age 5 years, we must strive to honor the experiences of the young children whose parents have been lost in wars by acknowledging and accepting that even babies and toddlers experience grief. They require respectful, attuned caregiving to support their grief process.

Infants and young children respond differently to death and grief than do older children. They do not comprehend the finality of death. They may be confused by the reactions of others in their family who are struggling with their own grief, and therefore may have difficulty understanding and making sense of the loss. Young children cannot sustain prolonged emotional responses and are prone to be very sad, angry or upset in one moment and playful and silly in the next. This mercurial behavior may lead surviving family members or caregivers to mistakenly think that the loss does not mean anything to them. Young children who have lost a parent to death will grieve this loss over the different developmental stages of their life cycle so that the experience of grief is extended when it occurs early in life.

For surviving parents and other family members, coping with their own grief and loss while also being available to those infants and toddlers who demand so much time and attention can be a great struggle. Finding support through family, friends, and the military can help these young families cope through tragedy.

Infants and young children need to feel supported and safe in their grief. They need to be given opportunities to express their feelings, questions, and concerns through words, play and behavior. They need to maintain routines as much as possible and have opportunities to remain connected to the legacy and memory of their lost parent.

Military children, especially those who live on military installations, are exposed to the formal and informal communications around the death of a service member, memorial services, and other military related rituals. These occurrences may be interesting and supportive or confusing and frightening to young children who have lost a parent. Caring adults need to be attentive to what a young child is exposed to through conversation, experiences, and media so they can help the child process and buffer the information in age appropriate ways. (Cozza & Lieberman, 2007)

On this Memorial Day—and every day—ZERO TO THREE acknowledges the strength of military families and the resilience of their young children and celebrates their dedication and spirit in contributing to the fabric of our country. To learn more about how to support a young child in a family of the fallen, download our guide “Honoring Our Babies and Toddlers: Supporting Young Children Affected by a Military Parent’s Death.


Cozza, S.J. & Lieberman, A.F. (July 2007) The young military child: Our modern Telemachus. Zero To Three, 27(6). 27-33.

Tragedy Assistance Program for Survivors (TAPS). May 19, 2012. http://www.taps.org/uploadedFiles/TAPS/RESOURCES/Documents/Factsheet.pdf (accessed May 2012).

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