When my family’s thirteen-year-old retriever mix Sadie died this September, I was struck by the dual nature of my own grief. On the one hand, I mourned my loving, neurotic girl who had been with my husband and me since before we had children. On the other hand, I was also quite worried about my children’s reactions to her death. Sadie had simply always been around. As we looked back at family pictures, there was Sadie snuggled up next to my newborns, trotted out alongside the kids on their first day of school photos and dressed up as a Halloween pumpkin along with the kids in their costumes. My children had never known a life without our family dog.
As a parent educator and as someone with an extensive clinical background in children’s grief and loss, I knew that this experience could provide a powerful experience of growth and development for my kids. I often counsel parents about how important it is to allow children to grieve for pets. This was a much better first grief experience for my kids than losing a grandparent or other human family member. And yet, my first reaction was to hide from my kids’ grief. I felt a decided impulse to run out and adopt a puppy from the animal shelter! Anything to avoid the difficult feelings I knew would come up. But instead, our family dug in, working through this challenging time together. Here are some tips to help your family if you are facing a similar situation.
Do Your Own Work
Many of us adults have had varied experiences of our own with death by the time we get to be parents. Every death you experience brings up the past deaths you’ve grieved. In order to help our children grieve in a healthy manner, we must take care of ourselves first. This means being aware of our different feelings, finding outlets for own grief, and being capable of holding our children’s grief.
It is absolutely fine for kids to see you being sad! But, you should also be able to offer them security and comfort. So, if you are feeling distant or preoccupied with your own sadness, remember to reach out to them. You might help them to understand what you are feeling, thus giving them the opportunity to experience empathy.
Give Developmentally Appropriate Information
Our family was lucky in the sense that our dog was quite old when she died. Her health had been failing over the past couple of years which had provided the opportunity to prepare the kids a bit for what was to come. I am a big fan of the book Lifetimes, which calmly and soothingly introduces the reader to different animals, stating what they are, what they do in their lifetime, and how long their lifespan generally lasts. The repetition in this book makes clear to kids that every creature has an amount of time that they live. Every body has a life cycle, and when bodies grow old they don’t work well anymore and eventually they stop working and they die.
I would encourage you to use this kind of language in talking to your children about death. It is important that children, even young children, are told that death is final. Euphemisms are not helpful in this context as young children are quite literal. Saying that the dog is sleeping is confusing. It is important to be clear and factual so that children know that once an animal has died, he or she will not be waking back up. We will not get to play with him or her again, but we will get to remember him or her forever.
Some people have strong spiritual beliefs that also guide their thinking about death. This is a wonderful time to share those beliefs. Others do not have a set belief system. This is okay, too. It is absolutely fine to stay grounded in the memories of our loved ones who have died, saying that we will always keep them in our hearts. It is also fine to say that different people have lots of different beliefs about death. Sometimes two parents have different ideas about souls, bodies, and death. Our children can hold different viewpoints. Encourage them to be curious, ask them what they believe. They may surprise you!
Perhaps, most importantly, don’t let your own confusion paralyze you. Having the discussion is more important than having the “right answers.” Being present emotionally and physically to hold your children in their own grief is the most important thing that you can give them during a challenging time.
Offer Different Opportunities to Express Feelings
Grief comes out of us in many different forms. Some might dissolve into tears while others may be angry. We may need to sit by ourselves, be wrapped up in big hugs, or to go outside and move our bodies. We may have all of those different needs in the course of a day, or even an hour!
This is a wonderful time to talk to our kids about feelings, about how big they can feel and how they also won’t always feel quite so overwhelming. In our family, we talked about how much we missed Sadie and how much that hurt, but I also told my kids that in time the hurt would be less but we would still have our wonderful memories.
I think that our kids need us to essentially do two things at once during a hard time: first, to absolutely validate their feelings and then also, to let them know the bigger picture, that they will be okay in the long run.
You might expect some regression in kids who are grieving. Try to give more cuddle time and more one-on-time to the extent that you are able. You might also be more tolerant of outbursts, tantrums, and arguments, with the understanding that with so may big feelings in their bodies, some feelings might come out in unexpected ways. I have had to remind myself of the quicksilver nature of my children’s feelings—how they can seem perfectly fine one moment, next dissolve in tears, and the next be laughing again. All I can do is be with them for the ride!
After Sadie died, our vet made a paw print in clay for us to keep. I set up a small memorial to her in our house with this memento, a picture of her in her younger days, and a candle. We still have this tribute to her and it offers a nice reminder of her throughout our day. My daughter and I culled through our family photos and created a photo book. My son created a video set to music. We spent time looking at the photos and watching the video as a family.
We also have Sadie’s ashes and have been planning a way to memorialize her when we feel ready. Layering in these rituals have helped us to feel connected to Sadie’s memories. My hope is that our family is laying a blueprint for how to deal with death in a loving, connected way. Death is an important part of life and the ways that we deal with death when our kids are young will impact them for the rest of their lives.
Lifetimes: The Beautiful Way to Explain Death to Children by Bryan Mellonie
The Tenth Good Thing About Barney by Judith Viorst.