Grief, loss and death are not the happiest of subjects and no parent looks forward to the day when they have to address this subject with their child(ren). However, it is unavoidable. At some point, you will find yourself struggling to explain, reassure and support your child(ren) through an experience or exposure to death. Here at Cincinnati Moms Blog, we have several team members who are trained in child development and how to work with children who have encountered grief, loss and/or death. This series is meant to provide some basic information about this sensitive subject.
Part One: The Death of a Pet
Dogs, cats, hamsters, even goldfish. Chances are that you and your family will have some type of pet at some point. Or if you don’t, Grandma and Grandpa will. And it is a fact that animals just don’t live as long as people do. It is very likely that your child(ren)’s first experience with death will be due to the loss of a beloved animal.
The tips I am about to list can apply to really any conversation you have with your child(ren) about death, but I am focusing on animal for the time being.
- Figure out what YOU believe. If you believe in God/Heaven… this can translate to the pet. If you don’t believe in God, you need to be able to articulate what you think happens after death because this is one of the most basic, common questions you will hear. You need to have an answer here, even if it’s science based, because the concept of simply “disappearing” is difficult to grasp and can be terrifying.
- Be honest. Children are very intuitive and also very resilient. You give them the best chance to develop positive coping skills by being up front and direct. Use age appropriate, simple terms (another post on that to come), but don’t lie or make up abstract concepts.
- Prepare them. If you know your pet is getting old or has cancer, start talking to your child about it now.
- Use real words. Yes, I am telling you to use terms like death, die and dead. If, like many people, you find yourself in the position where you need to have your pet “put to sleep”, I would recommend avoiding the use of that phrase with young children. Instead, explain what that means and why it was a humane choice for your pet.
- Make memories. Let your kids do what they need to do to say their goodbyes. This might mean going with you to the vet (you are the best judge of when your child is ready for this). Or it might mean a memorial service or making a garden stone to remember the pet by. Encourage laughter and silly story telling. Allow the child to pick out a favorite toy or treat to pay tribute to the animal. You could even donate some to your favorite shelter.
- Respect individuality. Some kids just won’t be bothered by the loss of the pet. This could be for a variety of reasons. They might just not be at a developmental level to where they fixate on these types of things. They may not fully understand the gravity of what happened. Follow their lead. Answer questions and allow opportunity to talk when it comes, but don’t force it. Everyone processes and grieves differently.
- Honor your own feelings. If you are sad, it is okay for your kids to see you sad. Tell them why you are sad – that you will miss your pet, but you are so thankful that he/she was part of your family.
- Read. If you are finding you just don’t know where to start with this conversation, books can be a great way to give information and start the conversation. At the very least, by reading about death and sadness, you are indirectly giving your child permission to talk about the subject. I strongly recommend reading the book through yourself first though so you are on board with the information presented and prepared to talk about it if you need to. Below are some book suggestions for you to get you started.
Younger Children (Ages 3-7)
Goodbye Mousie:: By Robie Harris
“One morning a boy finds that his pet, Mousie, won’t wake up. The truth is Mousie has died. At first the boy doesn’t believe it. He gets very mad at Mousie for dying, and then he feels very sad. But talking about Mousie, burying Mousie in a special box, and saying good-bye helps this boy begin to feel better about the loss of his beloved pet.”
The Invisible String:: By Patrice Karst
“This is a beautiful story about how we are all connected by an invisible string made of love, even if we are not able to physically be with someone anymore. The Invisible String touches on fears of separation and loneliness and reassures children that we can always be connected through love.”
Gilbert the Great:: By Jane Clarke
“From the time Gilbert the Great White Shark was a tiny pup, Raymond the Remora stuck to him like glue. Raymond was always on Gilbert’s side.’ Then one day, Gilbert wakes up to discover that Raymond has gone. Mrs Munch does everything she can to help her little shark come to terms with his loss and – slowly but surely – Gilbert learns to smile a wobbly smile through his sadness. He knows that Raymond will always be in his heart and, when mum takes Gilbert to the wreck, a chance meeting helps him find happiness once more. Jane Clarke’s heart-warming story, exquisitely illustrated by Charles Fuge, is funny and sad in equal measure. Gilbert the Great will touch anyone who has experienced the pain of losing a friend or the joy of making a new one.”
The Tenth Good Thing About Barney:: By Judith Viorst
“My cat Barney died this Friday. I was very sad. My mother said we could have a funeral for him, and I should think of ten good things about Barney so I could tell them…
But the small boy who loved Barney can only think of nine. Later, while talking with his father, he discovers the tenth — and begins to understand.”
I Miss You (A First Look at Death):: By Pat Thomas
“When a close friend or family member dies, it can be difficult for children to express their feelings. This book helps boys and girls understand that death is a natural complement to life, and that grief and a sense of loss are normal feelings for them to have following a loved one’s death. Titles in this sensitively presented series explore the dynamics of various relationships experienced by children of preschool through early school age. Kids are encouraged to understand personal feelings and social problems as a first step in dealing with them. Written by psychotherapist and counselor Pat Thomas, these books promote positive interaction among children, parents, and teachers. The story lines are simple and direct–easily accessible to younger children. There are full-color illustrations on every page.”
School Age Children (Ages 7-10)
Charlotte’s Web:: By E.B. White
“Some Pig. Humble. Radiant. These are the words in Charlotte’s Web, high up in Zuckerman’s barn. Charlotte’s spiderweb tells of her feelings for a little pig named Wilbur, who simply wants a friend. They also express the love of a girl named Fern, who saved Wilbur’s life when he was born the runt of his litter. E. B. White’s Newbery Honor Book is a tender novel of friendship, love, life, and death that will continue to be enjoyed by generations to come.”
The Boy Who Didn’t Want to Be Sad:: By Rob Goldblatt
“A boy who doesn’t want to be sad tries eliminating all sources of sadness from his life, including toys (they can get broken), pets (they can’t live forever), friends (what if they don’t call?), even his own family (sometimes they get mad at him). Ultimately, he realizes that all sources of sadness are also his sources of happiness, and he reclaims them all.”
Tough Boris:: By Mem Fox
“Boris von der Borch is a mean, greedy old pirate–tough as nails, through and through, like all pirates. Or is he? When a young boy sneaks onto Boris’s ship, he discovers that Boris and his mates aren’t quite what he expected, after their pet parrot dies.”
Tear Soup:: By Pat Schwiebert
“If you are going to buy only one book on grief, this is the one to get! It will validate your grief experience, and you can share it with your children. You can leave it on the coffee table so others will pick it up, read it, and then better appreciate your grieving time. Grand’s Cooking Tips section at the back of the book is rich with wisdom and concrete recommendations. Better than a casserole! ”
Water Bugs and Dragonflies:: By Doris Stickney
“After a water bug suddenly leaves her pond and is transformed into a dragonfly, her friends’ questions about her departure are like those children often ask when someone dies.”