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Bedtime is what I feel the closest to her.
For as long as I can remember, I always feel a new burst of energy and a yearning for connection at the end of the day.
Almost ceremonially and ritualistically, I peel the weighted blanket off my bed each night, fold it, and place it on my bureau--an act that always connects me to the memory of her pulling her fancy bedspread off her bed and hanging it on the blanket rack each night.
Originally published on Her View From Home. Click HERE to read the full article.
This morning as I scrolled through social media, I saw multiple sites sharing the news of Chrissy Teigen’s and John Legend’s “pregnancy loss.” There was comment after comment and judgment after judgment about how they were wrong to be sharing something so “personal” with others and how they were selfish to take and post photos of themselves grieving with their baby.
Those attitudes, those statements, and those judgments are exactly what is wrong with our society and our understanding of grief.
Can we please stop minimizing the pain felt from a miscarriage and infant loss? Can we please give space for people to grieve openly about it? Can we please stop sanitizing death, grief, and sadness to make it more palatable for others? Can we please stop denying that the death that Chrissy and John just experienced is something that couples across the world face every single day?
Something awful has happened. A parent’s worst nightmare has come true. Their baby died. The baby they named, felt move, dreamed about, envisioned a future for, and talked about with their other children has died. It is real. It is grief. They are allowed to talk about it and express it — yes, even publicly and yes, even though it is difficult to see.
When someone, celebrity or not, loses an aging parent we don’t say they should keep it quiet or private. We don’t balk at them for sharing photos. We don’t mock them for their sadness or grief. We don’t minimize their pain. Why can’t we show that same grace to couples after they lose a child?
The answer is simple — because such a loss isn’t supposed to happen. We don’t want to think about it. We don’t want it to be real. We don’t want to bear witness to such pain. But, we need to do just that.
Grief is grief.
Loss is loss
Death is death
These are the things that remind us we all are the same — celebrity or not, rich or poor — we all lose someone close to us at some point and for a lot of people, that someone close is a child, an infant, or a baby that never gets to live outside of the body.
Please, before you roll your eyes or say “Ew. Keep that private” consider the people around you — your friends, your family, your neighbors, your colleagues. I promise there are people in your life right now who have experienced similar loss and have kept their pain inside because people have told them sadness like this must be kept a secret. I sit with those people in my grief sessions and see the impact that the inability to grieve openly has on them. We need to do better for them.
My heart breaks for Chrissy and John and every other parent that has felt what they are feeling right now — and there are a lot of them out there. I am so thankful to them for being willing to be brave in their pain and to demand space for their open grief.
I hope that some day we all can afford all grievers that same kind of space — the space they need and deserve.
“Can I ask you a random question?”
A question like this at the end of a therapy session is always enough to make a therapist’s heart stop. But today’s question was one that is probably on the minds of many people out there.
“My friend just had a death in the family and I want to do something for him. Is it appropriate for me to bring him a donut from his favorite bakery?”
First of all, I’d be hard pressed to find a time in which is wasn’t appropriate to bring someone a donut from their favorite bakery but that’s not the question right now.
Second, of all. “Yes. Yes. One thousand times yes. Bring the donut. Always.”
The most important thing any of us can do when someone we love is grieving is show up. Call them. Text them. Bring them donuts. Bring them dinner. Sit with them in silence. Sit with them and talk. Sit with them and cry. Sit with them and laugh.
It doesn’t matter what you do so long as you sit with them in their grief and let them feel heard and seen.
If you are questioning whether bringing your grieving friend a donut is appropriate, go get one right now. You won’t regret showing up for them and it will likely mean the world to your friend.
If you have a friend who experienced a loss a few months ago or the anniversary of that loss is coming up, now is probably a great time to bring them a donut too. Lots of people show up in the beginning following a loss but then the world moves on, often leaving the griever behind.
Chances are that you’ve got people out there that you care about, right now, who are grieving alone and in silence.
Bring them the donut. Always.
As I sat at my desk during my 10 minute break between grief therapy clients, I opened my Facebook app to scroll mindlessly for a few moments, completely unaware that my life was about to change.
A photo of one of my friends filled my feed instantly. It was a beautiful photo of her, one that captured her love for all people and her genuine desire to make life better for everyone. I skimmed the headline beneath the photo quickly and my brain couldn’t compute what I was seeing. The gruesome, horrific, unreal words didn’t match the photo before me of the carefree young woman that danced the night away at my wedding or led classrooms full of preschoolers in silly songs alongside me.
It couldn’t be.
With a shaking finger, I clicked on the link and my brain was finally able to make the connection.
We failed her.
The society she worked so hard to make better had failed her, letting her and her daughter die a horrible death at the hands of the man that was supposed to love them most. It’s a fate shared by many women and now she was part of the startling statistic of women whose desire to leave their partner led to their own murders.
Tears spilled freely from me in that moment. I’m not so sure she ever really knew how much her role as a mentor had meant to me or how much it had changed the course of my personal and professional life. I don’t know that I ever really told her how much I had learned from her and how much I always wished I had the courage to commit my life to making the kind of global changes that she so selflessly has made. I hope she knew how much of a ripple she had left in my life but I can never know for sure.
Now it’s too late. She’s gone.
Nausea swept over me and I broke out into a cold sweat as my brain began to process the terror she must have felt in her final days, final hours, and final moments as she realized she had no way to escape.
As dark as it was, I wanted to stay in the moment of grief, that space of remembering her, but the clock kept ticking and in just a minute I was due to provide grief therapy to another patient. I quickly pulled myself together, fixed my face, and pushed my emotions into a far off corner in my mind so that I could hold space for someone else’s grief, hoping that I would be able to process all of my feelings later on.
After leaving work that day, I briefly exchanged text messages about the awful story with some of my closest friends and shared a Facebook post not about the manner of her death but about her contributions to the world, as if somehow disconnecting the photo of her beautiful face from the horrible headline could alter reality.
Then I went about my night. I sat at a friend’s kitchen counter with other moms, making decorations for a youth football championship game while chitchatting about mundane stuff.
My brain both craved this simple, unemotional task and yet also wanted to reject it.
I wanted to set the football decorations aside and share her legacy with everyone. I wanted to tell them about her, her work, the sheer number of lives she changed, and my memories of her from such a pivotal time in my life.
But no one wants to talk about sadness or grief or loss or death.
So, I didn’t bring it up and neither did any of the people there with me. Collectively and silently we somehow agreed to pretend it hadn’t happened. We minimized the reality of her death and ultimately minimized her and her life.
I moved through the space of the next few days in a deeply contemplative state, as one often does when the unexpected and terrible occurs in life. Suddenly things that seemed incredibly important paled in comparison to what my friend had gone through; what her family and community were going through.
My own priorities snapped into focus. Life is far too short for many of us and tomorrow is not a guarantee. So, why waste any of it on the things and the people that hurt you or don’t make your life better? What is going to matter most at the end of my own life? What will my legacy be? Do the people who matter to me know how much they matter?
After a loss or trauma, the world marches on, leaving the grievers behind to pick up their own pieces, or to at least pretend they are picking up their own pieces. But, inside there is a constant loop of questions being asked and a deep yearning to be given permission to talk about their grief.
The reality is that we are surrounded by hurting people all the time; people who want to talk about the sad stuff. They want us to ask them about their dead child, their murdered friend, their dying grandparent, or the struggles of waiting to find out if their biopsy is cancerous. They are craving permission to share their inner struggles about trying to find a way to make sense of the saddest parts of our lives.
But, instead we throw ourselves into the things that don’t matter: small town politics, conflict in surface-level friendships, baskets of laundry that are overflowing, traffic that adds 15 minutes to our commute, gossip, drama, nonsense. At the end of our lives, none of it will matter.
Imagine how much more beautiful this life could be if we all were just a little more real with each other. Imagine the benefits to being just a bit more vulnerable. What would it be like if we all focused more on real connections and sloughed off the stuff that won’t matter when we are at the end of our own lives? I wonder if the outcome would have been different if more people had done this for my friend. Perhaps it wouldn’t have changed what happened to her but maybe, just maybe, it would have given her a few extra moments of hope, comfort, and validation.
We have work to do.
After spending nearly a year producing podcasts on topics including grief, parenting, health and wellness, relationships, and pop culture, it can be a bit of a challenge to find the episodes that are most meaningful and useful to you. We want to make it easy for you to find the resources you are looking for without having to spend time searching and filtering.
Here are 11 of our most popular Grief Podcast Episodes:
It’s that time of year again.
All around us are the sights, sounds and smells of the holidays.
Stores are beginning to fill their aisles with holiday decorations and pine tree scents. Soon Dunkin Donuts and Starbucks will roll out their festive holiday cups and radio stations will begin playing the first notes of holiday music. Before we know it, Santa will be arriving in locations all around us to pose for photos with children. Already families can be seen in local parks and pretty fields taking their annual family portraits for their Christmas cards. Restaurants are advertising their holiday meal order schedules and holiday party invites have already made it to some people's inboxes.
Such a wonderful and joyous time of the year. Right?
Not for everyone.
For many people, the winter holidays are excruciatingly painful. Either they have recently lost a loved one and this will be their first holiday season without them or the holiday season is a sad reminder of their lost loved one.
When they see all the happy, smiling faces on Christmas cards, they are reminded that their loved one won’t be on any cards this season.
That adorable, heart-warming commercial with the cheerful family seated around the Thanksgiving dinner table makes them realize there will be an empty chair at their own Thanksgiving table this year.
While perusing their local Target, a holiday sale banner catches their eye and they see “the” perfect gift for their loved one, forgetting for just a split second that there will be no gift exchange with their lost loved one this year.
Maybe you know these people.
You probably do. Think about your friends, your family, your coworkers. How many of them lost someone within the past year? How many lost a very important person ever and might ache for them throughout the holiday season?
Maybe this person is you and you find yourself dreading the holiday season.
For those of us living in parts of the country where the sun sets earlier, leaving us in darkness from 4:30pm on, the nights can start to feel painfully long and lonely this time of year. The colder weather forces us indoors, encouraging us to hibernate. But if you have recently lost a loved one, the longer nights, colder temperatures, and holidays on the horizon can all add up to a deep, dark sadness.
Whether you are the one hurting this holiday season or you know someone for whom the holidays are difficult, here are some tips to help you manage the grief that is often so palpable this time of year.
1. Honor your loved one
So often our society pressures us to “move on,” “heal,” “find closure,” or “let go” of our loved ones.
Those messages are wrong.
We shouldn’t be letting go; we should be finding new ways to hold on to them, hold onto our memories of them, and find a new way to feel connected to them.
Spend some time thinking about how best to honor your loved one this season. It could be as simple as lighting a candle or hanging a special ornament on your tree. Maybe it’s volunteering to feed the homeless, host a toy drive for children, or sponsoring a family for Christmas. Go to their favorite restaurant. Cook their famous side dish. Wear their necklace.
Stop trying to forget them.
Instead, embrace your memories of them. Talk about them. Say their name and say it often.
2. Allow yourself to feel
It’s amazing how connected our senses are to our emotions. Just a certain smell in the air or a song on the radio can take us back to another time in our life. The holidays can do this too.
Don’t be surprised if you find yourself more emotional than usual.
If you need to cry, cry. If you you need to express some anger, take up kickboxing or scream into a pillow. Seriously. Let out your emotions.
If you try to bottle up all of your feelings, they probably will escape at the most inopportune times — like when your child spills his glass of apple juice, someone cuts you off on the highway, or that lady in front of you tries to sneak 13 items into the 12 item or less express line at the grocery store.
Feeling all of your emotions doesn’t make you weak; it makes you human.
3. Be social…or don’t
It’s normal to not want to celebrate at all during the holidays after a loss.
Seeing so many people laughing and filled with joy can feel surreal when your world is still spinning uncontrollably after a loss. If you don’t want to attend some of the holiday functions, don’t. You know yourself best.
One word of caution, however: isolation after a loss can lead to depression and complicated grief. Sometimes it’s good to force yourself to socialize, just a little. When you do accept an invitation somewhere, though, give yourself an escape route to use if things suddenly feel too much. Give one or two friends that will be at these events a heads up that you may need to quickly duck out. This little bit of planning means that you are giving yourself permission to leave whenever you need to leave, without having to worry about explaining your quick departure to anyone.
4. Speak up
For many people, their support networks kick into hyper-drive following a loss. Phone calls, texts, visits, casseroles, and cards are pouring in almost non-stop immediately following the death.
But after the funeral, those types of support can suddenly come to a crashing halt. Do people suddenly stop caring? No.
Many people are uncomfortable around grief and simply don’t know what to say, what to do or how to act. So, they avoid.
Don’t be afraid to tell your support network what you need. It’s ok to ask for specific things like invitations to social events, regular phone calls, a visit, staying away for a while, and even practical help with things like errands and child care.
In most cases, your support network will be delighted to have been given a specific way to be useful and supportive for you.
5. Be kind to yourself
Watch for negative self-talk and talking down about yourself. Thinking or saying things like these ones only bring us down more:
“I shouldn’t be crying like this.”
“This shouldn’t bother me so much.”
“What’s wrong with me”
Be kind and understanding to yourself.
Grief doesn’t go away. It’s always there inside you. You carry it around with you and sometimes it’s heavier than other times. It’s normal and it’s ok. Recognize that it is normal for this time of year to be more painful and challenging.
This is a good time of year to try to look for the things and people that bring you hope. Do things that make you feel good and nurture yourself. Yoga. Walk. Exercise. Journal. Read. Play music. Listen to music. Start therapy. Attend a support group.
Remember that you are human and deserve compassion — especially from yourself.
When someone we know loses a loved one, their support network instantly kicks into high gear. Food trains get organized. Go Fund Me accounts get created. Casseroles get tossed into ovens. We make phone calls to and spend time at the homes of the grievers. We show up at wakes, funerals, and memorials and give our best condolences, whispering “Let me know if you need anything.”
We really do a great job, right?
While we, as a society, do a great job in the initial days following a death, our support quickly fades away, leaving our friends who have suffered the loss of their loved one to suffer yet another loss — the loss of their support network.
It turns out that a peculiar thing happens when someone dies. The loved ones left behind are too overwhelmed to know how to ask for help or even what to ask for that would give them support. So, they ask for nothing, waiting for their friends to instinctively know what to do. Meanwhile, their friends go silent, assuming that their grieving friends will call them when they are needed. So often these miscommunications and missed opportunities result in heartache, pain, and fractured friendships.
It’s not surprising to see our inadequacies around providing support to a grieving friend. We are a death denying society. We don’t like to talk about death, dying or grief. It feels too heavy, messy and personal and when something makes us feel uncomfortable, our natural instinct is to turn away from it, stick our heads in the sand, and hope that it gets better over time. So, we show up at the beginning do all the things that society has told us are helpful and then we retreat, waiting for our grieving friend to take the lead.
As a grief therapist, I spend my days holding space for grieving individuals. They spend their time with me crying, not just about their dead loved one but also about their friends who stopped showing up after the first few weeks of their grief. They feel more alone than ever before and are often quite shocked at how ill-prepared their support network seems to have been for them.
If you are like most people I know, you would love to feel more equipped at how to best help your grieving friends. You don’t ever want your friend to feel like you abandoned them. Start by putting down the casseroles. Don’t send that text message that says “Let me know if I can do anything for you.” Instead, try one or more of the following tips to provide support to your grieving friend. It could be the greatest gift you ever give to someone.
1. Be there
There are few things in life that can make you feel as powerless as watching someone you love have their heart broken. For many of us, we can only spend so much time in that uncomfortable place before we need find something to distract ourselves. Rather than running away from the pain, try to lean in to that discomfort and be there for your friend. Remind them that you care about them and will be there for them. There are no magic words you can say to make things better. Just being there with them physically is sometimes magical enough.
2. Ask questions
Ask your friend what they need. Rather than saying “let me know if you need anything” or “I’m here if you need me,” be brave and ask things like “What will be the hardest part of this month for you?” or “What do you need to help you get through the season?” Encourage your friend to be honest with you about their needs.
3. Find a way to help, without being asked
For many grieving individuals, the thought of asking for support is overwhelming, daunting and feels far too vulnerable for them. While they may benefit from having someone take their children to and from school, fix that old broken rock wall, pull out their summer patio furniture, or help with projects around the house, chances are pretty low that they will ever ask for that kind of help. Figure out a way, besides casseroles, that you can provide some functional help to your friend and then offer it.
4. Talk about their loved one
For many of us, we have been conditioned to avoid talking about someone who has died. We don’t want to upset our friends and remind them of their loss. We don’t want to make their pain worse. Guess what? They probably are always thinking about their loved one. Their heart is always hurting. One of their biggest fears, especially if they are a parent who has lost a child, is that the world (and they, themselves) will forget their loved one. Say their name. If you knew them, talk about your memories of them. Talking about them will give your friend permission to also talk about them and doing so will help immensely with their grief process.
5. Include them
Even though your friend may not feel much like socializing at times, continue to extend invitations. Don’t assume that just because they have declined your last four invitations means they will never be interested in hanging out with you again. That 5th invitation just may be the one that finally gets them out of their house.
6. Don’t take it personal
When your friend turns down your invitation to your summer bbq, backs out of your girls’ night out at the last minute, or doesn’t return your text message right away, don’t take it personal. Sometimes grieving individuals simply don’t have the energy to socialize and it has nothing to do with their level of desire to spend time with you.
When it comes to grief, there is no such thing is closure. There is no such thing as moving on. Your friend will always feel some level of grief about their lost loved one. Some days that loss may feel as heavy as a boulder, completely weighing them down. Other days it may feel like a small pebble in their pocket. No matter how heavy or light their grief may feel from day to day, the griever will still feel its presence every day for the rest of their life. Wouldn’t it be wonderful for your grieving friend to feel your supportive presence beside them through it all?
Are you a teacher, school administrator or school support personnel? If so, think back over the past three years. How many times has a student in your school lost a parent, sibling or significant family member? How many times has your school community lost a student or a teacher? Chances are fairly high that every single one of you could think of at least one instance where grief reared its ugly head in your school.
Now, think back to your professional training experiences. How many courses did you take about the psychology of grief, common grief counseling interventions or how to support grief inside the classroom? How many grief courses were required for your professional licensure? For most of you, the answer to both questions is probably "none."
The statistics regarding children's grief in schools are staggering. According to Comfort Zone Camp, one out of every 7 Americans will lose a sibling or a parent before the age of 20. That's 15% of children under age 20. Yet, it's not unusual for teachers to feel completely unprepared when it comes to supporting a grieving child in their classroom. Teachers are with our children 5-6 hours each day, 5 days each week, 9 months a year. They are the frontlines of support in the classroom for grieving children yet we arm them with few resources and guidance on what to do and what not to do.
For many people, things that make us uncomfortable or cause us to feel inadequate and unprepared often become things we avoid. It seems like this holds true for many teachers and schools across America. Grief is not discussed in many classrooms. Most classroom libraries probably do not have books on death, loss or grief. Group discussions after a death strikes a classroom are likely a rarity. Teachers surely make referrals to the school social worker (if one exists in the building) and figure that it's probably best to not mention the loss to the grieving child or to their peers. After all, they don't want to make their students hurt even more. But, the silence many grieving children receive from their schools following a loss can be deafening.
Below are some tips to help teachers and districts begin to improve their ability to provide support to grieving children within the classroom. Remember, nearly 15% of your students are likely to experience a significant loss before they reach the age of 20.
How to Support Children’s Grief in the Classroom
1. Reach out
Perhaps the most important suggestion I can offer is to take an active role. When you hear of a child's loss, reach out. You will not be inconveniencing the family. You will not be a bother to them. Your genuine concern and offer of support could be something that is remembered forever. While you cannot take away that student's loss, by reaching out you are telling them and their family that they are important to you and that they are valued members of the school community. You don't have to offer anything - just your acknowledgement of their loss and validation of their worth is important enough.
2. Share accurate information
In today's super connected society, news travels at lightening fast speeds. One Facebook or Twitter post can notify a whole community of a death in just a few moments. Sometimes the information that gets circulated is based on speculation and is inaccurate. One of the best ways to address this issue is to formally share the information with the correct details. Ask the student's family what information they would like shared and if they would like someone from the school to share it with the school community. Imagine the stress a student may feel returning to school but not knowing who knows about their father's death. Who do they have to tell? What do they need to say? When someone from the school takes that pressure away from the family and child, they take away what can be a very heavy burden.
3. Involve peers
No matter the grade, one of the most important aspects of any child's school experience is their relationship with their peers. When a student loses a family member, it is important for their peers to not just be notified but to be provided with an opportunity to explore the loss themselves. Perhaps their friend's now deceased parent used to volunteer on Field Day or helped out in a carpool or came to school on the student's birthday each year. For many children, seeing a peer lose an important family member can also trigger worries about the possibility of losing their own loved one. That math unit can wait a day while classrooms take an hour to allow the peers to ask questions, support each other and perhaps even identify a way to help their peer.
4. Formally commemorate
Most schools value formal ceremonies. School concerts, school plays, pep rallies, academic assemblies, holiday gatherings and graduations are common occurrences in schools. Why? Because they bring the community together, reinforce the concept of interconnectedness and allow for shared experiences. Schools should not be saving these formal gatherings only for positive moments. During times of grief, schools can find a way to bring everyone together to commemorate the loss of a member of their own community. Some schools plant a tree, install a bench or hold a naming ceremony when the community experiences a significant loss. Formal commemoration activities can also be done on a smaller scale. Perhaps the student's classmates could put together a book of poems, cards or pictures that the students create and then give the book to the grieving child and family (teachers and parents should proof it first though!).
5. Be flexible
For many children, returning to school provides them with security, structure and safety. It is not uncommon or abnormal for a child to want to go to school the very next day after they have had a loss. School can provide grieving children with an opportunity to be distracted from the loss and sadness for short periods of time. It can allow them to feel normal and feel a connection to the life had prior to the loss. But, for many students, there are moments in the school day when they may find it challenging to focus, attend to a task or even sit still. Be flexible with children, regardless of their age, when it comes to their coursework after the loss. Accommodations such as extending deadlines and allowing extra bathroom breaks will probably not ruin the child academically. However, setting rigid standards, being inflexible or accusing children of taking advantage of their grief situation may set children back academically, socially and emotionally. Yes, I am even suggesting applying this same flexibility to teens.
6. Resist the urge to share and compare
While you may have had a similar loss as a child, it is not always helpful to share such experiences with a grieving child. It can potentially minimize their experience and loss. The same holds true to statements like "I lost my Dad too. I know how it feels." The truth is that no two people experience loss and grief in the same way. Avoid sharing and comparing your own experiences and focus instead on providing genuine support.
7. Anticipate re-grieving
Many adults who have experienced a loss can appreciate that there are certain times of the year where their grief gets re-triggered. Anniversaries of the death, certain holidays and birthdays are all common events that can cause a surge in grief. Children experience this same phenomenon but they also have an added layer of complexity in their grief. As children develop cognitively, emotionally and socially, they begin to understand and view their world differently. They start to apply different questions and interpretations to their world and to any losses they may have had. So, while your 6th grade student may have lost their sister in the 2nd grade, they may re-grieve that loss in completely new terms as they begin to see the world through 6th grade eyes. For them, it could feel as if the loss is brand new.
8. Track community losses
Schools and school districts should consider tracking data around grieving children - even if it is only for certain losses such as parents or siblings. Tracking this data will allow districts and schools to identify patterns that are out of the ordinary. For example, if your small elementary school has 9 students who have lost a parent in a span of 2 years, your school may want to explore the possibility of offering more specific resources for those students and families as well as the rest of the school community. That's a lot of grief to be experiencing for one school in one short period of time.
9. Support the staff
Let's face it, being a teacher is one of the hardest jobs out there. Teachers are tasked with an immense amount of goals, objectives and responsibilities without an immense amount of funding or resources. While grief can enter the classroom through the experiences of the students, it can also enter the classroom through the experiences of the school staff. Teachers, administrators and staff members all also encounter loss and may be actively grieving alongside the grieving children in the school. Explore ways to come together to support each other as professionals.
10. Provide support over time
There is no timeline for grief. There is no such thing as closure. When people lose someone important to them to death they don't ever get over it. Grief is with them forever and while sometimes it's a silent companion, other times it's a loud, unruly, disruptive companion who is difficult to manage. Just as grief will exist over a long time frame, so too should the support from the school. Check in frequently with the student to see what they need, not just in the days and weeks immediately following the loss but in the months and years after the loss as well.
If you are interested in receiving additional training and education on the topic of supporting children's grief in the schools, be sure to visit Children & Grief: Guidance and Support Resources from Scholastic/New York Life for helpful resources such as lesson plans, handouts and training modules. Also explore the website for the National Alliance for Grieving Children for additional training resources and to identify children's grief centers in your area. If you are in the Massachusetts area and would like to arrange for a grief/bereavement in-service in your school, please send an email to me at email@example.com for more information.
I have always been an animal person. If I am being honest, I am just a few pets away from being the stereotypical crazy cat lady of the neighborhood. In fact, there is a high likelihood that the 90 year old version of myself will live in a house with at least a dozen stray cats and five rescue dogs. Animals find me everywhere (ok, maybe I find them). During my high school years, I somehow adopted more than one neighborhood feral cat. I once left a beach party in the Dominican Republic to hang out with the local beach dog. A feral kitten climbed into the wheel well of my tire 8 years ago and she still lives with us. I went to the pet store for cat food one day and witnessed a pair of juvenile cats get separated as one was purchased; so, I adopted the other one. I now have three dogs - all rescues and all a bit quirky.
Why do I have so many pets? It's simple, really. They bring me and my family lots of joy. They teach us invaluable life lessons; things like love, patience, responsibility and care giving. But, they also teach us about something else - grief and loss.
When our senior dog, Sandy, made it clear to us that her time was coming to an end, we had a long conversation with our two boys, ages 5 and 8 at the time. The plan was that our veterinarian would come to our house and euthanize Sandy in front of the fireplace, her favorite spot. We asked our boys if they wanted to be there and arranged for child care in case they didn't. Surprisingly, they both wanted to stay and be a part of it; and so they were. After spending the afternoon loving Sandy, giving her all her favorite things and carrying her to her favorite places in our home, the four of us sat on the living room floor, in front of the fireplace, in a circle around Sandy while the vet and his vet tech helped us to say goodbye. She died in our arms and it was the most beautiful, amazing and heart breaking thing we have ever experienced as a family. Saying goodbye to Sandy after 12 years was nearly impossible; but watching our children say goodbye to a pet they had known their whole lives crushed us.
Death is death. Loss is loss. Grief is grief. For many people, losing a pet is exactly the same as losing a human and for children, the loss of a pet is often their first experience with death. It was for my boys. It was their first family member to die and I so badly wanted to shield them from the grief but I knew that I just couldn't. Death is as much a part of life as birth and one of my jobs as a parent is to help my children understand and process all the things that surround death. Having worked in the bereavement field for many years and having experienced pet loss twice as a parent, once as a sudden loss and once as a planned loss, I have developed some important insights into how best to handle pet loss with children.
1. Remember that every child is unique.
A family friend recently lost their dog and I asked my two children for some advice for their friends. One child said "Talk about him. A lot. It helped me to remember stories and look at pictures." The other said, "Think about happy things - vacations, movies, stuff like that. Don't think about the dog. I didn't like when I thought about her." Their approaches could not be more different and both approaches are ok. Remember that no two children are the same. Siblings will likely grieve very differently. It is normal. How one child handled one pet loss may be different than how they handle another pet loss later in life. Remember that there is no cookie-cutter approach to handling loss with children. Let their individuality guide you and resist the urge to compare.
2. Be honest
If you know a pet's health is failing, be honest with your children. Children are smarter than we often give them credit for and they probably have already noticed the same signs you are noticing as your pet's health fails. There is a tendency, especially with smaller pets like fish, birds and hamsters, to lie to children and quietly replace the dead pet with a new pet. I always advise against taking this approach. For starters, your children will, at some point, find out that you lied to them, and while we lie about things like the Tooth Fairy and Santa Clause, lying about death is a different type of lie and can cause confusion in children later in life. Death and grief are painful but your children will encounter them in their lives. Help them face death, grief and loss head on. Look at it as an opportunity for growth rather than an impossible challenge.
3. Invite them to be part of the process
If euthanasia is being considered, let children know, in developmentally appropriate terms, what is happening in the pet's body and what the plans are for saying goodbye. Let your children know they can ask you and the vet questions (check with your vet ahead of time). Invite them to be part of the process and explain what their involvement could look like. Let them know they can back out of the process at any time and have an escape plan ready for them. While having them be part of the process may be scary for us as parents, it can actually provide children with the concrete information they need to more effectively handle the loss. It also sends them a message that they are important and their input is valued.
4. Have grief books available for them.
There are countless books available for children of all developmental stages about pet loss. Purchase books, borrow some from a friend or take home a few from your local library. Leave the books in a designated spot in your home and let your children know you are always available to read the books with them or they can take one and read it on their own. This approach gives children control and power but also sends the message that you are there to support them. Take some time to read the books first to make sure they will be appropriate for your children. A list of books can be found here.
5. Don't be quick to put everything away
We had to put Sandy's dog bed away immediately. It was too painful for all of us to look at. But, we kept her collar out. In fact, it's still out. Her ashes and collar sit on our mantle, a reminder that she was real, our love for her was big and that she was an important part of our family. We found a way to keep memories of her around without breaking our heart into a million pieces. It might be helpful for your children to leave at least a few things out to remind them of your pet. Talk with your children and get their input.
6. Consider some sort of memorial service
This tip may sound a bit hokey and cheesy. This service is not for your pet, but for your children. Formal services help us to acknowledge and share our grief. Children often need this time to openly and formally express and share their own grief and also observe the grief of others. Children can draw pictures, write out cards, put together a memory board or picture book and say a few words. Invite them to participate but let them know it is not necessary. Let them sort of drive the bus. One child may want to participate while another may not want to be involved. Both approaches are acceptable.
7. Have some quiet family time
There is a tendency to distract and keep everyone busy following a pet loss. While this is a good approach to a point, it may send the message that grieving about your pet is not normal and not allowed. It might send the message that grieving is abnormal and shameful. Some quiet time as a family should be scheduled to allow for some natural grief reactions to occur - things like movies at home, board games, quiet time for reading, etc may be quite healing for everyone. Sometimes, especially when we have active children, our lives move 100 miles an hour and time for things like grieving just slips away. Create some space and time for your children to feel and express their emotions. Bedtime also seems to be a good time for families to share some quiet moments together.
8. Remember that "mad" and "sad" do not equal "bad"
Anger and sadness are two of the most common emotions felt by children following a loss. For many children, these feelings are complex, confusing and overwhelming. As children are concrete thinkers and death is such an abstract concept, expressing their feelings with words can often be a challenge. Thus, it is common for some children to express their grief through actions and sometimes these actions can be labeled as "bad" behaviors. You may see increased acting out behaviors like siblings fighting and bickering more, teasing, negative attitudes and grumpiness. You may also see regressive behaviors such as bed wetting, thumb sucking, asking for help with things like tying shoes - things they were able to do for themselves previously. These reactions are often normal and are temporary. As children have opportunities to express and process their feelings, their behaviors will often return to normal.
9. Communicate with other adults
Depending on your child's age, they may have other important adults in their lives. Send a quick email to those important people (i.e. their teachers and their coaches) to let them know that your child just experienced a pet loss - not as an excuse for behaviors but as a heads up for the child seeming off and also as an extra set of eyes. Let your children know that you are doing so. When Sandy died, my boys were in 2nd grade and preschool. Both boys' teachers were great and pulled the boys aside privately to express their condolences and gave them an opportunity to talk about it with classmates. One did. The other didn't. The younger one did draw about it later on - sometimes during school, sometimes at home. The teacher appreciated knowing about the loss as it helped guide her discussions with him about his drawings and writings.
10. Be real
The trickiest part of all of this is that you, as a parent, are also grieving. Contrary to what many people think, it's ok to let your children see you cry. You do not need to "be strong." Rather, be real and let go of some of the pressure you put on yourself. When Sandy's remains were ready to be picked up, we were not prepared for how intense our emotional reactions would be. When we got everything home and took the urn out of the bag, I broke. Sobbed. Then, we all did. You know what? We were ok. We supported each other and my children were not scarred by seeing me cry. Rather, they had the opportunity to see me safely express my raw feelings and saw me put myself back together. Give your children a good model for grief.
For most people, many of the suggestions provided feel strange and uncomfortable. I get it. It is quite likely that my suggestions are completely opposite of what your gut may be telling you to do. So many of us have been conditioned to not openly grieve, to not talk about our feelings. Think about how we, as a society, view death and grief. We avoid them, at all costs. We provide 3 days off for bereavement and then send the message to those that have lost someone that they should hurry up and move on, get over it, find closure. I firmly believe these messages are wrong.
There is no such thing as closure. We never heal after a loss. There is still a hole in our heart and sometimes something triggers us, sending us right back into the dark depths of grief. That is normal grief. As parents, we can choose to send our children a different message about grief than the message that many of us were given. We can teach them that feeling pain and grief after a loss is normal, acceptable and healthy. We can provide opportunities for our children to express their feelings and can reassure them that grief, although at times messy, uncomfortable and frightening, is normal.
The Association for Pet Loss and Bereavement
The Pet Loss Support Page
Grief is everywhere for all of us - yet our society does a poor job allowing people to grieve. It is ok to grieve and it is normal to struggle with how to continue living your life while dealing with grief.