It was a beautiful day. The sun was shining as it has a habit of doing on most days in central Texas. Except for the lice-outbreak that we were dealing with (ugh!), life was pretty great. My girls were excited because we were planning to go see the new kittens at Auntie’s farm. There were five of them altogether, and – once the kittens were just a little older and stronger – we were planning to bring three home. One for each of my girls. The girls had bonded with their kittens, and had chosen names for them already: Katie Belle, Johnny JoJo and Carol.
And after operation lice-comb-out-number-two was complete, we were going to take the hour-long drive to see them again. And swim at Auntie’s pool, of course.
The phone rang. Thinking Auntie was calling to firm up visiting plans for later in the day, I answered with what I thought might be a ‘chirpy’ hello (considering I was covered with tea tree and coconut oil and swishing a lice-comb in a bowl of hot water).
Her voice was different.
I managed to hold it together until I hung up. And with all the best intentions of being super strong for my kids, managed the first two words without starting to cry: “Girls, I have something really sad to tell you”
“Is it about dad?” my youngest asked, eyes wide (their dad travels for work a lot). “No, No, honey, no not dad”. In a strange way, that question made it easier to tell them (because THAT kind of news would have been far, far worse).
In between my own tears, I managed to relay that Johnny JoJo had been killed by a dog sometime during the night. Along with one of Auntie’s other kittens.
It was the first major loss, the first unexpected death of something close to my children, and I could feel the wave of anguish as strongly as if I had just been hit by a wave standing in the ocean. Except this wave didn’t feel good. At all. We all sat on the floor that morning, sobbing at intervals. Rocking. All I could do was hold my little girl as she cried and sobbed. My other two girls were sobbing and crying too – feeling the loss almost equally. We alternated from talking, quiet thought and crying for probably about an hour. I got back to combing while we all talked. And cried.
About two hours later we were packed up and on the road. To see the other kitties and to have a little ‘service’ for Johnny JoJo and the other kitten. The girls were more quiet than usual in the car during hour-long drive there.
The second wave of anguish hit soon after reaching our destination. My eldest daughter quickly realized that there had been a mistake – the second kitty that was killed was, in fact, Katie Bell. This wave of sadness was even more intense than the first – possibly due to the shock of it all.
We worked through it as a family, auntie and uncle and me and dad (by phone) and the kids… We muddled through, as it were.
It took another two days, and some more intense emotional episodes, but we came out the other side. My girls have finished crying. On the third morning, after another emotional night, my eldest daughter simply said “I’m okay today, Mom. I’m okay about it today”. And I knew she was. And she is. My three girls are still sad, but they are okay. And those things can happen together – feeling sad, but okay.
While you don’t have to be a mental health professional to help your kids through a loss, I am very glad that there were a few tips I could summon up to help us through. Because believe me, when faced with kids who are distraught, every mom feels helpless. Especially when it’s a hurt that a Band-Aid and a little kiss and cuddle can’t fix.
So we decided to share some basic facts about grief and a few simple tips in the hope that they may help you and your kiddo(s) get through a loss as well.
Sometimes – often – there just are no words. Especially when the situation is intensely emotional. When it is difficult to talk about. When there is nothing you can say to take away the pain (even though you would chop off your right arm if that is what it took). Feeling the pain of loss is a natural, human reaction. Simply being there, sitting beside or holding your child is comforting, and conveys in a physical way that you are there, that they are not alone, that you support them.
Sometimes when there are no words, it’s because words just get in the way.
Celebrate and Remember
Doing something that helps a child to remember or celebrate their pet can be an important part of the healing process.
We had a little ceremony – the girls wrote on and decorated the “coffin” (cardboard box) that the kittens were laid to rest in. They could even look at the kittens and touch them if they wanted to. My oldest opted out of touching them, and also out of the ceremony. We respected her choice, as everyone grieves in different ways, and on a different schedule.
We buried the box as Auntie shared some beautiful words, thanking the kitties for being with us, and wishing them a safe journey wherever they were going (we like to think of them crossing a rainbow bridge). Your own family traditions and values will help you decide what is best, and how you create a way of honoring. If you do not have a tradition, you can create one. Write a letter and bury it with the pet. Paint a rock that your child can keep with the pets name on it. Create a little gravesite they can visit (if appropriate). Create a memory box and put photos or mementos into it and decorate it. Write messages on a balloon that your child can release. You can do one or more, one or more times.
Your child will know when they are ready to move on.
Allow all emotions
Grief does not take a straight line path. It is not a process of feeling sad for a while until that feeling vanishes. Don’t be surprised if your child has sudden bouts of sadness, anger or frustration. My oldest daughter, for example, experienced denial (“I don’t think it’s really her, I don’t think she’s really dead”) and bargaining (“If I could do magic, I would turn back time to just before it happened, and I would save her”) within the first 10 minutes of realizing her kitten was gone.
Possibly the most helpful thing to remember about any type of grieving process is that it is not linear – that we can revisit any state/emotion at any time. But as long as each emotion is allowed to express itself, and is accepted, then we can move through it. Each time we move through the emotion it becomes less intense, until the grief and loss is processed.
You’ve got this!
If you expect the unexpected in terms of emotions following the loss of a pet, and remember to be there to listen, allow and accept all emotions (and of course provide ample cuddles) – you are well on your way to supporting your child through a difficult loss.
P.S. : Don’t forget to look after yourself too! Talk to someone close to help you process the loss – what affects your child affects you too. Allow your own emotions. It has taken a few weeks to be able to finish this post because I would get tearful just remembering my childrens’ pain. I still do, but I know I’m okay now.
Sad, but okay.