At some point, all of us will experience the loss of a beloved family member, friend or “fur kid”. Adults struggle to explain the concept to little ones as it’s a parent’s natural instinct to protect their peewees from pain.
Yet, it’s important to remember that if their sense of loss is not addressed properly, it could result in lifelong emotional difficulties. In the book Parenting from the Inside Out: How a Deeper Self-Understanding Can Help You Raise Children Who Thrive, child-expert authors Daniel J Siegel and Mary Hartzell note that healthy grief is a normal process. However, unresolved loss in children can give rise to self-destruction, social isolation and difficulty in functioning on a day-to-day basis. So, help your kids make sense of sad experiences, as well as build emotional resilience.
Tell it straight
Many children get their first real experience of death when a pet dies. News of the death should be conveyed by a person the child trusts and feels comfortable with, such as a parent, suggests marriage and family therapist Dr Hana Ra Adams.
As kids can sense what’s happening, give them the information they need to make sense of what has happened from their perspective. They need to make sense of it and how it fits with their lives and their picture of the future, explains psychologist and family therapist Anoushka Beh.
Do also gloss over any gruesome details or images, such as if Rover was run over by a car, as such info will only cause shock and even trauma.
News of the death should be conveyed by a person the child trusts and feels comfortable with, such as a parent.
Use simple language
Children take words literally, so be very clear and careful with your choice of words. “Say the person was ill for some time and his or her body doesn’t work anymore,” suggests Dr Adams. Don’t be vague or use euphemisms like they “went away” or “are sleeping” as your child might start fretting about sleep, or that if a person goes away, they might never come back.
Recognise their feelings
It’s hard for kids to wrap their heads around what death truly means, so don’t be shocked if your child doesn’t react initially. Most children can understand loss at around 5 years of age, but how well they grasp the concept depends also on their emotional maturity, the circumstances of the loss, and how connected they were to the person.
When junior does react, her emotions may be all over the place. She might be sad one moment, angry the next and fearful a minute later. They may also think irrationally, like worrying that you might also die soon. The best thing is to reassure them that you’re healthy and will be there for them. Also, show them plenty of love and affection during this trying time. Do let your tot stick to her regular school and play routine, this ensures she gets a break from grief, while showing her that life continues after death.
Keep reading for ways you can help junior make sense of the loss…
Help them cope
When children ask repeatedly about the departed person or pet, this could mean that they need to be reassured that things will be all right, or that they can’t quite make sense of what’s happening.
Ask questions to get a clearer idea as to what your child does not understand, so that you can address her remaining concerns, Beh suggests. Posing questions like, “How do you feel?” or “What’s the most difficult part for you understand?” will help her make sense of the situation.
If junior cannot find the words to express her feelings, Dr Adams recommends reading a book that addresses death and its meaning. Try The Invisible String and I Miss You: A First Look at Death. Alternatively, drawing, writing or role-playing can also help kids express how they feel.
“Allowing your child to say goodbye might be helpful…for some children, writing a letter or poem might be enough. It depends on how your child is able to process it.”
If your tot is old enough, ask if she wants to have a funeral for her pet, which will help her come to terms with the death. Place it in a small shoebox and bury it your garden, or flush the fish down the toilet bowl. Dr Adams notes, “Allowing your child to say goodbye might be helpful…for some children, writing a letter or poem might be enough. It depends on how your child is able to process it.”
Depending on your child’s level of maturity, decide if it will be helpful to bring her to a funeral of a family member. Although looking at a corpse may be scary, it might help your tyke understand the finality of the farewell, and since everyone is feeling sad, it’s fine to feel the same.
Help them navigate the aftermath
Give your tot enough time to grieve properly before replacing a dead pet. Beh notes, “Getting another pet quickly to distract or avoid feeling the loss may suggest to your kids that an ‘escapist’ attitude towards pain and loss is the best approach to take.” Let your child know that the pet can never be replaced but he or she can have a new friend and companion.
A memory box is a great way to help your mini-me preserve memories of the departed. You can make and decorate the box together, then fill it with photos, handwritten letters and poems. Whenever she’s missing her loved one, junior can always look to the memory box for comfort.
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