Mary Kathryn Johnson - Mary's Blog


No Easy Way

Our household had two of everything...until last week. Two adults, two kids, two dogs and two cats. We have had the adults together for 28 years, the kids 13 and 10, the dogs 6 and 2 and both kitties only 4 months. As anyone with kids and/or animals knows...anything can and does happen.

You can imagine that a black cat (Andy pictured above) might not have the best luck to begin with, but add that he is a male and likes to explore at night, and you guessed it, he has been the first to go. The adults in this household are now dealing with their first experience of the kids' loss of a pet.

There are several schools of thought on explaining death to kids, but I'm here to say, there is no easy way.

I know people who have lied to their kids, and simply waited for the kid to notice the pet's absence, then told the child that they don't know what happened - Cowards way out if you ask me! The kids will always wonder what happened to their beloved pet. (I husband wonders to this day where Brandy is, and whether his parents told the truth.)

I know people who take the animal away, or bury it before the child has a chance to see it and realize, then tell the kid that the pet died, and that is life, and, "I've taken care of it." - Another coward who can't deal with it him/herself, and can't imagine trying to help their kid through the grief.

Since my sons are old enough to understand, my husband and I just decided to calmly, kindly tell them we had some bad news, and spill it directly. This is the hardest thing I have had to do as a parent so far. I have to temper my own grief, and help my sons process theirs. It has not been easy, and it will certainly take time, but we believe that our children need to understand that death and sadness are part of life, and life will always go on. We still look for Andy to come in the dog door meowing up a storm looking for food, and my 10 year old still cries mostly at night when he thinks about Andy, but there is no easy way to get over the pain, anger, guilt and frustration that come with death and loss - you just have to feel your way through it.

I want to help my sons handle this part of life by feeling their feelings, and naturally letting them subside, rather than hiding or suppressing them and eventually, when they are adults (or teenagers for that matter) needing other coping mechanisms like drugs or alcohol to numb the pain they never learned to ride out on their own.

What do you think? Are we too harsh in telling it like it is and making them feel the pain? What have you done to help children cope with loss and death?


Bert Carson said...

The tough questions come at 1 AM - at least this one did. I believe two things about kids and truth - the first is tell it - the second is redirect their focus if necessary - example - my first, and almost best, dog was run over by the school bus on a day I didn't ride the bus home. That was 57 years ago and I'm still mad at the driver because no one helped me understand.
That won't make your task easier but it might move the kids nearer closure -
And, if you determine to tell the truth and do it in the best possible way, when you open your mouth all the right words will pour out - you'll still cry but you'll be glad you did it that way.

David L A said...

I think that when something is out in the open then children deserve an accurate explanation but one thing that concerns me is the way in which children are told everything, traumatic or otherwise. This may be a bit strong but when we tell them everything we rob them of childhood. It is different with a pet but it is less traumatic if the pets are not humanised!

Ellen Woodward Potts said...

You are right on target. While we have never had a pet die, our daughters have experienced the deaths of a grandfather, a great grandmother and an uncle. They were especially close to the two men who lived near us. Teaching kids healthy ways to deal with grief, which eventually affects all of us, is one of the best things you can do for them. Our daughters have very different personalities, and predictably, handled their grief in very different ways, but both grieved and moved forward.

Trying to shield your children from all unpleasantness (money, grief, disagreements, etc.) does them a great disservice.

MommyLoves To Chat said...

Bert ~ DON'T YOU EVER SLEEP?! :o) Thanks for the comment, and the confirmation of the impact the death of a pet has on children when not handled correctly. We used the "love like you've never been hurt" motto when we adopted these kittens, and gently educated our sons about the wandering habits of male cats. When Andy was hit by a car, and we had to tell the boys (luckily we found him first, and brought him home so they didn't have to see him by the side of the road right outside our court) we were able to reference that 'male cat' thing, and help them realize that this is part of life and we will carry Andy with us in our hearts. Thank God no on shot Andy with an arrow - which actually happened in a neighboring town - and he didn't walk around with the arrow sticking through his body like some bizarre old west cat-like-arrow-hat. That situation has well-deserved anger and blame placed upon it.

Ellen ~ Thanks for the support. We all will deal with these feelings at some time in our lives, unless we shut down our hearts. Pets, when they are truly part of the family, follow children everywhere and sleep in their beds are special cases indeed. Pets are the only unconditionally loving creatures in a child's life, and they have no equal. Grandparents who nurture are absolutely irreplaceable!

David ~ I agree 100%, and thanks for sharing your thoughts and concerns. Some situations are shared with little ones way too early. Our children are exposed to sexual situations and innuendos, drug usage, violence and poor language at a very young age if allowed to watch television unattended. When a pet who was not allowed to sit at the table with a plate of his own, but who was allowed to sit under it to catch any crumbs is no longer there to warm you feet, you can't just say, "He ran away."