We are about to have to have a hard conversation in our house. Tiny, now 9, has experienced death before. Teeny, only 3, has not. We have a beloved pet that is towards the end of her life. She is obviously deteriorating to the point that Papa Bear and I are having to have some hard conversations of our own. Our vet doesn’t feel we have much longer. Our sweet Foo has been in our family since she was born in May 2006. Tiny and Teeny have never known a world without all three of our kitties. I have already started trying to prep Tiny so that she understood what was happening as we get closer, but it is still going to be hard for her. Loss is always hard, no matter what type. So that begs the question, how DO you talk to kids about death?
Our family is protestant, so we believe in Heaven. Tiny and I have talked about this before, and she vividly remembers her brother’s death from when she was four (read about those lessons here). When Angel Baby passed, we were honest. We were compassionate. We supported her through questions, tears, and heartbreak. It was devastating because we were also experiencing those things. I still experience those things. I learned long ago that you never learn to live without a person, you learn to live around their loss – nothing more, nothing less. Pets are a little different, but they are generally the first taste of loss that a child feels. For the child, it can be confusing and scary.
Be Honest But Age Appropriate
It is critical that we support children through these life events by being honest. Imagine our burial and death rituals as observed by the child brain and no context. It is the stuff of nightmares! Does that mean that you should keep the child sheltered? Absolutely not, but do be aware of how you present it to the child. Remember that the person or pet that has passed is still a real, living and breathing entity in their mind. Explain what your family feels happens to a body when you die. If you have beliefs about the soul or where it goes after death, share that too. I bought the children’s version of the book Heaven is for Real and read it with her. It talked about a small boy’s visit to Heaven, his subsequent visits with long dead relatives, and how it impacted his life. It was a very positive and encouraging view of Heaven, what happens to our soul, and where we go when we die. I chose not to use the “he’s sleeping” euphemism with her because she was a very intelligent and very imaginative child – one that would immediately draw comparisons between herself each night, and her brother. Honesty is hard, but it is the best foundation to build trust and reassure the child as they struggle to process a very complex and abstract concept.
Let Them Ask Questions
Children are notorious for having the ability to ask pointed, cutting questions. Let them. When we allow children to ask questions, we are helping shape the narrative that will run in their heads for the rest of their life. Death is hard enough to process without it being a source of even more fear and confusion. Answer their questions honestly and compassionately. It was difficult to answer some of Tiny’s questions. They were painful. As her parent, my first instinct was to avoid some topics. In hindsight, I am glad I didn’t. I am glad we took the time to answer questions like “can I send him this onesie” as we were shopping one day. It hit me like a brick wall – out of the blue, the pain was raw, real and in my face. I could have shut her down, but that one innocent question was an indicator that she was still thinking, still processing her brother’s death. She wanted to connect to him. She was still trying to provide for him. I had to explain to her that in Heaven, he has everything he needs to be healthy and happy until we are all together again. He doesn’t need anything that Jesus hasn’t already provided. I was choked back tears of my own, swallowed the lump forming in my throat, physically felt the icy spread of anxiety and darkness as it radiated out from my chest. After a breath, I looked into her innocent eyes and told her she was perfect. I told her she was kind, thoughtful and a good big sister. I praised her for being caring and loving her brother. Why? Because in that moment, I could have shut her down and avoided her question to save myself pain later or I could reinforce the positive characteristics she was exhibiting and reinforce that death is temporary – not a taboo.
Allow Them To Express Emotions – Any Emotions
My family was never prone to “feeling” your feelings. If you raised your voice it was bad. Arguments? Disrespectful. Facing pain? Nope – unnecessary. Growing up, we were not encouraged to feel – really feel the emotions that we faced. As a result, I ate my feelings and struggle with it to this day. I have to do a better job of coaching Tiny through hard moments so that she is able to process feelings appropriately. Sure, it is easier to tell ourselves that children are resilient and that they will bounce back. Will they? In a way. But why do they need to process these feelings and emotions on their own if we can be emotional Sherpas for them?
As painful as it was, I didn’t limit her questions – even months later. I also have not shared his photos with her. She doesn’t know I have a box of tiny clothes, a tiny hat, and itty bitty hand and foot castings. Those are mine for now. When she is older, old enough to understand the significance of that box, I will share it with her. As much as it burned my brain to recall details, I gently shared them with her. She wanted, needed to know what he looked like (a lot like she did when she was a baby, actually). Other times, she wanted to know if he could visit (oh how I wish he could!). The acid memories flooded my mind, and with a mother’s care and crafting, I separated the acid from the sweet and passed the sweet on to her.
I wrote him a letter – I poured my heart into every swipe of the pen. I told him of his family, his life, that he was loved. I put it in his coffin with him so that he would always know I loved him – would have evidence of it with him. Letters help you process, help you move energy from your soul in a productive way. In the last six years, I have written letter after letter – to him, to others, to myself. They are a great way for children to express their own feelings in a way that helps them move the energy of grief and loss and helps them mentally move the thoughts and emotions out of their conscious mind. Art is another great way for children to express their feelings, especially children who are not yet writing. Allow the child to color their favorite memory and attach it to a balloon or place it with the person or pet. Processing and making sense of the experience is critical.
Reassure The Child
I cannot reinforce this enough. Reassure the child that they are not going to die in the same way, at the same time as well. Children naturally associate the death of a loved one or pet to their own life experiences. Don’t we all? It is important to remind them that Grandma, Fluffy, or Mr. Fins, whomever the departed is, died for a specific reason – one that doesn’t impact them. They do not have to be afraid, and it is ok to be confused and upset.
Above all, please don’t tell them that “big girls/boys” don’t cry. They do. I do. We all do. Crying is one way we express sorrow, grief, insecurity, fear, or frustration – all things associated with death. Who are we to tell a child that they cannot express their sorrow over a loved person or pet’s passing? They need to know that it is ok, that all of us grieve differently, and that there is no right or wrong way to do so. Children need to be guided, with us as their guides, how to navigate experiencing loss and separation – especially when grief can be coupled with fear, pain, and even regret. In the end, it doesn’t matter how a child expresses themselves, it matters that we allow them to express their emotions and guide them as they grapple with loss.