Have you or your child lost a loved one? Are you grappling with what to say when a grandparent, sibling, parent or even a pet dies?
If so, I imagine you want to support your child by letting them know what grief is and that it’s a normal process for all of us when we lose someone we loved.
Following is my personal story about loss and managing grief. I’m also sharing tips to help you and your child navigate the grieving process.
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When a Pet Dies
Our parakeet, Blueberry died recently. It was my son’s first pet. He’d picked him out at the pet store on his birthday, one year prior. And the day we lost him reminded me of why I’d put off getting a pet for so long.
The sad part at the end was something I remembered from my own childhood. I had a cockatiel that had been left out of his cage and had been killed by the family dog.
But I reminded myself and my son that having and loving an animal is worth it, even if it’s hard when you lose them.
Creating a Memorial
At the suggestion of a friend who’d recently lost the family fish, we buried our bird in a special spot under the pine tree in our backyard.
We wrote his name on a stone and set it on top of the mound of dirt. Now we had a place to remember him. When my son got home from school we went outside to have our own memorial experience where he could talk about how he was feeling and say good-bye.
When a Person Dies
My grandmother passed away a few days before Blueberry did. We’d just visited her in a hospice facility six weeks prior and had all had a chance to say goodbye. That had been a gift.
But I was no stranger to loss.
When my brother died, I didn’t see it coming, I didn’t get to say good-bye and that was a different kind of grief. That pulled a string in me that had me unravelling for years, adjusting to a world without him in it.
There have been other losses, but I won’t bore you with my grief resume. Because of this, by the time I had to comfort my son I kind of thought of myself as a grief expert. And I even thought I wouldn’t feel sad anymore because if you have enough loss you eventually go numb right?
That hasn’t been my experience.
The tears still came. My son and I both cried for our bird, for my grandmother and I also cried for all the ones I’d loved and lost before that.
Grief is stored like muscle memory, sometimes dormant in the body until it’s reinvigorated.
So what can you do about it?
Be mindful of the age of your child and see what they ask about after a loss. When they ask questions, answer honestly. For example, don’t say that a person “just went to sleep for a long time.” You may think you are softening the blow but that will spike the child’s worry and make it hard for them to sleep.
Let them ask questions and answer them. Don’t be afraid to share your own grief or cry in front of them. I don’t think it protects children to be emotionless in these situations. We’re parents but we’re also human beings with feelings. When they see that you aren’t afraid to cry, it lets them know it’s okay if they do.
For a few days after my grandmother and our bird died, my son told me he’d teared up at school and hoped no one had noticed. I told him that was okay and that I’m sure no one did but if they had he could tell them about his bird.
What Happens After a Person or Pet Dies?
This conversation will likely be shaped by your religious or spiritual beliefs, or lack thereof. So in that sense, what you believe happens after death is probably what you will share with your child in an age appropriate way and based on if they ask questions.
This is such a universal human question that I think it’s important to talk about it if it comes up and not sweep it under the rug because it’s an uncomfortable topic.
Even saying, “I don’t know for sure what happens, but this is what I think happens…” might be enough. In our household, I am more spiritual and not religious, but my husband is Catholic so I try to cover the bases.
I’ve explained that I believe loved ones look over us and we can feel their presence, their spirit or soul after their physical body is gone. I still hear songs on the radio that make me think of my brother, or see a butterfly that makes me think of my grandfather.
I’ve also mentioned the idea of heaven because it is an easy comforting thing to talk to a child about. I’ve also said some people believe in reincarnation and that different religions have different ideas about what happens but no one knows for sure what happens when we die.
I’ve been to so many and honestly, I’m not a fan. I like to remember a loved one in a more private/personal way and think of how they were as a happy living person. I’d rather light a candle, say a prayer or eat the person’s favorite meal as an homage.
I was nine when I went to my first funeral. It was my great-grandmother’s. As a child, especially open-casket services felt very traumatic for me. The body looks so healthy and preserved I remember thinking it would pop up and come back to life, that it wasn’t true that they were gone forever.
However, funerals are needed “closure” for some. If a child is very young and you can hire a baby-sitter while you attend, I recommend it. However if the child is older, you can be honest about what to expect and ask them if they’d like to attend.
If I’ve learned anything about grief over the years, it’s that everyone is different in what they need and how they handle it.
If the loss was substantial for your child, like a parent or sibling, they may need some counseling at some point. Because when a family grieves a child may feel like there is no space for them to grieve because they are too worried about looking out for everyone else.
Being able to talk to someone outside of the family and express even the darkest of thoughts without judgement can be helpful.
It was my therapist who helped me understand I needed to let out all the emotion and tears and not try so hard to hold it in all the time. A therapist’s office is a safe place to do that for a child or an adult.
Grief Books and Resources
Read up on this stuff.
In Oregon, The Dougy Center has grief programs for children. The Compassionate Friends is another great resource for anyone who has lost a child or sibling. I attended free meetings for awhile and it helped knowing I wasn’t alone.
What's Your Grief is an online resource started by mental health professionals dedicated to educating people about death and grief.
There are so many books about grief, I’ve read my fair share. Elisabeth-Kubler-Ross famously wrote about the stages of grief, so her books are worth a perusal. And Broken Open by Elizabeth Lesser is an inspiring book for anyone who has experienced a loss of any kind (through death, divorce,infertility, etc.)
Grief pops up at strange moments over time. Holidays, the anniversary of the death, and birthdays can be the hardest. That said, a wave of sadness might also hit you in while you’re in the frozen foods aisle at the grocery store and you hear that song that makes you think of your loved one.
Having a ritual on those days may help. Some people like to bring flowers to the cemetery. Or you could go out for ice cream and eat your loved one’s favorite flavor.
Some families might want to make a donation or volunteer with an organization that has meaning for the loved one they lost. Maybe wearing their old favorite sweater that you inherited might help.
As an example, every year at Halloween, on the anniversary of my brother’s death, my son had seen me get sad. I talked honestly about how I missed my brother. But I also let him know that we still love and enjoy Halloween and that it was my brother’s favorite holiday.
So to honor my brother’s memory we bought a bunch of Skittles to hand out to trick or treaters because it was my his favorite candy as a kid.
If rituals aren’t your thing, just allowing yourself or your child to take it easy and not plan social activities on those anniversary days might be good in case a big cry is needed.
The good news is, kids are resilient. That doesn’t mean they won’t have ripple effects from a loss for the rest of their lives but they can still find joy in life.
Letting yourself and your child know it’s okay and normal to feel sad, angry, apathetic or even happy, will help.
Be easy on yourself and your family. Processing a new normal takes time.
Also know that when grieving a substantial loss, there is no getting over, there is only getting through.
What has helped you or your child the most after the loss of a loved one? Feel free to share your thoughts in the comments.