If you’ve never navigated your way through grief before, the first time can be very confusing and worrisome. Obviously, even if you’ve done it a thousand times, it can be quite horrible (though it doesn’t seem to be as difficult to navigate for some). I’ve seen friends go through it for the first time and aside from all the terrible parts of grief (you know, the crushing sadness, the exhaustion, the anger, the guilt or regret that sometimes accompany it), the process itself can really catch a person off-guard. It’s not always straight-forward and it certainly doesn’t fit into any convenient mould.
I have the dubious credit of having been through the deep waters of grief many times in my life. I’m not going to compare mine to anyone else’s as, well, you can’t, but for context:
My sister died when I was eight years old and she was 19. The following years consisted of each of her pets (she was a real animal lover) passing away one by one. Her little dog. Then her horse. Then her hamsters (you’d have thought they’d go first). As a child, it felt as if everything was being ripped away from me and there was nothing I could do about it.
Later, after I graduated, my grandpa, then my uncle, then my cousin (the same age as me) died one after the other, three summers in a row.
Of course, since then I’ve reached my thirties and so I’ve experienced more loss, as many of us do over the years. More grandparents, a couple of friends, and of course more pets. Loss is a part of life. I’ve found some comfort, actually, in being familiar with the feelings of grief and knowing that they’re normal and that it’s okay to just give myself some time. I have also taken comfort in being able to guide friends, somewhat, through this process and reassure them when they feel like it must not be going as it “should.”
Last week, our youngest kitty, a very precocious and almost impossibly loving not-quite-two-year-old grey female named Olive, was run over in front of our house while she was out overnight (she’s not supposed to be out at night, but she does often manage to sneak out and won’t come back when called). It has left some of our kids reeling, and some of us, myself included, have been having a really hard time moving through the grief. This is the first time I’ve helped kids to grieve, and it feels a bit… well, huge.
Thankfully it’s “only” a cat (hey, I grew up on the ranch — animals die and it’s sad but it’s also admittedly not the same as a person). But wow, were we all attached to this cat. It also wasn’t at all expected, since she was so young. A shocking, unexpected death can be a lot harder to get past than one that was expected due to, say, old age.
I’ve been struggling with not only my own sadness but that of the kids (some of them are having an easier go of it, which is also totally normal and healthy). My heart hurts so badly not just for my loss but for theirs, and knowing that there is nothing I can say or do to salve that pain.
I do know, though, that I’m familiar with grief. And I know what can help and even what to expect, to a point. When a child needs to deal with loss, the one positive is that this is practice for coping with loss later in life — an unfortunate reality that they will inevitably have to face. This is a chance, as a parent, to give them tools to make it through not just this loss but future losses and at least make the experience of grief slightly less frightening.
Here are the things I’ve learned about grief:
Honesty is Crucial
You won’t do your kids any favours by making up some story about where the pet (or person) has gone. Be honest. It’s an important part of moving on.
You have to feel it
Don’t try to downplay your kids’ feelings of sadness or anger, or shush them away. Sure, everything really will be okay, but this sadness or anger or whatever else they’re feeling (and they might not even know what it is) is very real and they need to feel it before it will go away.
Childhood is when people learn to “be strong” or push their feelings down inside — either because they feel it’s not okay to express those feelings (they’re told not to be a baby, to calm down, stop crying, etc) or they are trying to be strong for the sake of others. This is noble but they need an outlet. Try to make sure they have someone they can cry to, even if it’s just one person.
Yes, in time they won’t feel this sad. But they need to feel the sadness or it may resurface later — it has to be dealt with sometime.
You need to be gentle with yourself
As adults, we expect ourselves to return to daily life so quickly. We might think that we can do schoolwork or paid work in the same way and just as fast, or that we should get back to our interests with the same zeal. It’s easy to beat yourself up for being slower, not wanting to get up in the morning, or falling behind on things.
Because we have these expectations of ourselves (and to be clear, we shouldn’t!), it can be easy to transfer them on to our kids. Recognize that kids might not play with friends with the same enthusiasm, they might have a hard time focusing on school work, or their eating or sleeping patterns might be different. Don’t indulge unhealthy habits like isolating themselves or eating unhealthy “comfort” foods that will only make them feel worse in the end, but do take this opportunity to teach your child methods of self-care. Try to guide them away from beating themselves up. Take a day off school and do something relaxing. Do things together as a family that you enjoy and replenish your spirit, whether that’s a hike or a movie or an ice cream cone. Treat them to foods they love that also help them heal — favourite fruits and vegetables or replenishing foods like soup or smoothies, for instance.
You might consider sitting with your children together or one by one and listing things that help them to relax or feel better when they’re down. I have a list like this and it includes the names of my favourite YouTube cat and baby videos, foods I love, activities that help me to feel better like taking a bath, going for a walk in the woods or reading a book. This is a list that they might want to keep and revisit if they have difficulties later.
And let them sleep more, if they need it. Grief can be surprisingly physical.
It’s in your best interest to ask for help or reach out
Encourage your kids to ask for help when they need it. Are they feeling pressure at school that they’re not as able as usual to fulfill? Do they need some company while they do their chores? Maybe just a shoulder to cry on? Many of us aren’t able to ask for help when we need it — learning at a young age that it’s good to do so will serve your child for the rest of their life.
You’ll have to give yourself a break from being sad, sometime
Yes, you have to feel it. But you can only wallow for so long. There needs to be breaks for laughing, and joy, and beauty, and love. Give yourselves an hour, a day, however long makes sense to just laugh and forget about the pain. As a parent this means facilitating this time for your child. Take them somewhere or plan something to give them a break from sadness. Really silly movies are good for this, or a family board game night with something like Apples to Apples, Twister, or charades. Build a giant blanket fort. Go on a silly scavenger hunt. Sing along with Taylor Swift.
It’s important to honour their memory
There are so many ways to honour the memory of a loved one who has passed. Of course I’m talking about a pet here, and this will be very different for a person. Some ideas in general, though, would be:
- visiting the grave site or a favourite spot — maybe, if it was a dog, going on a walk to their favourite dog park or pathway
- framing photos
- making a donation in their name — this is a no-brainer for pets, as rescue foundations abound
- holding a memorial ceremony
- creating art or a small memorial object
- talking about favourite memories with them
- watching videos or looking at photos of them together
- placing a special stepping stone or memorial stone somewhere in the yard or garden
It’s good to talk about it
Encourage your child not to keep their thoughts to themselves. Grief can be scary and foreign and feel very lonely, like the things happening inside your head are weird, or like other people don’t think these things. Our thoughts around death can be morbid, or funny, or seem outlandish — this is all normal. If there is no one in the family who is comfortable talking about these things, it’s better that your child talk to someone who is (maybe a friend, neighbour or more extended family member) than to talk with someone who will confirm the feelings of being strange or their thoughts not being okay.
If there is simply no one to talk to, writing can serve as a substitute.
There can be comfort in art
My second cousin is a music therapist, and I gave her a call when I was writing this to talk about what that means and how it can be helpful for kids who are grieving. She explained to me that art — visual, music, movement — is non-verbal and therefore allows kids to express feelings that they might not understand or be able to words to. Art and music therapy can bring a child some self awareness around their loss and how hard it has hit them, and also help them to gain closure.
My cousin also described a child who had been showing behavioural issues, and through music therapy uncovered unresolved grief around the loss of a pet.
This is definitely worth checking out if you think your child might benefit from some help coping or working through a loss or other difficulties.
Grief can be sneaky — know it for what it is
Grief is sneaky and surprising, especially for people who haven’t navigated it or witnessed it up close before. Even for those of us who have, the way others grieve often looks different from the ways we grieve and so it can still be confusing. Or our own grief can catch us off guard each time!
Grief is not just sadness. Grief can be complicated and layered and last a long time. Or, it can be short and fairly simple and that’s okay too. However a person grieves is just fine — their brain and heart are doing what they need to do. Telling them that they are “not grieving right” is not helpful.
I will add that I am not a therapist, counsellor nor psychologist and if you’re worried about your child you should consult a professional.
That said, give space for grieving — for yourself and for your child.
Grief may look like sadness; fatigue/exhaustion; anger; fear; guilt or simply moving on.
It can involve laughter; morbidity; inappropriate jokes; lots of tears; sleeping too much; not sleeping at all; withdrawing from activities for a while; eating more; eating less; lashing out.
I recently read a book called The Other Side of Sadness which pointed out the possibility of some people simply moving on very easily, as well. This is a healthy and normal reaction to loss. Sometimes people are able to move on from a loss, and function very well. It doesn’t mean they’re not grieving, or that they’re in denial, or that they feel any less. This reaction and way of processing needs to be honoured just as much as tears or anger.
You can take solace in your beliefs
Whether your child is religious or spiritual or totally atheistic, encourage them to take the beliefs that bring them comfort, and hold onto those. This might be a belief in heaven, or reincarnation. It might mean holding on to the belief that everything happens for a reason, or it might mean resting in the idea that the loved one will always be with them. Maybe the idea that everyone has a time that they must die brings your child comfort. Maybe they find it comforting to think of life as a cycle and that the loved one has returned to the earth in the very literal, physical sense.
When I was 8 and lost my sister, I found great comfort in certain poems and idioms. One was “Do Not Stand at My Grave and Weep.” I printed it out and hung it on my bulletin board. I also found it comforting (and still do) to think of my sister as always with me, watching over me.
I still find comfort in my beliefs of things being predestined, and of souls staying with us. However, we can’t assume that others find these thoughts helpful. If your child seems open to discussing some of these ideas, you might try telling them about some of your own beliefs or what others believe about death. What sounds true to them might be very different than what you believe to be true. Try to help them find the resources they need to foster their own beliefs and find comfort in these.
However, if your child has no interest in discussing such things, that is fine too!
If your child is grieving, you have my love. Try to go easy on yourself, too. It’s incredibly hard to watch your child deal with sadness and to feel like there is nothing you can do to help them. Know that you’re doing your best and that what they need most is your love.