Last year we unexpectedly lost our dog to cancer. Like most pets, she was part of our family and my kids didn’t know a world that didn’t include her in it. This was our family’s first encounter with grief and it was one of the hardest things we’ve ever had to go through.
For many families, losing a pet is their first experience with death, especially for children. For other families, it may be the loss of a grandparent. In incredibly unfair circumstances, it could be the loss of a parent, a child or a sibling. Whatever has brought this grief on, it’s important to navigate these complex emotions with patience, understanding and compassion; not only when helping your children through their loss, but also when coming to terms with it yourself.
What is Grief?
Grief is the response to loss. It most commonly refers to the feelings after losing a loved one, but it’s possible to experience grief after other situations too. For example, you may feel grief after a divorce as you mourn the loss of the traditional family unit. You may experience grief during your child’s graduation as you realise your little baby is no longer a baby. You may feel grief if a good friend moves away and you mourn the loss of this support person.
Grief is a part of life. At times it’s overwhelming and feels like it will rip through you. But it’s also proof of how strong we love.
The Stages of Grief
According to authors David Kessler and Elisabeth Kübler-Ross, there are five main stages of grief: denial, anger, bargaining, depression and acceptance. Not everyone experiences all stages, there is no set limit on each stage and it’s not always in this order. But this is the general framework used to help understand how grief impacts us.
Denial is characterised by a state of shock or numbness. In kids, you may find that they don’t even acknowledge what has happened and continue to act as if everything is the same. This is a perfectly normal reaction.
Anger is another natural part of the healing process, and one of the most intense stages. Your child may lash out, blame others and question why this happened. It’s normal to feel deserted and disconnected during this stage.
Bargaining refers to making a deal, often with God, or yourself, that you would do anything to change things. Please God, let her live. I would do anything to get her back, I would give anything to see her again.
Depression is often the longest stage of grief. It’s normal for kids to withdraw and to experience bursts of intense sadness as they come to terms with what has happened.
Acceptance is the fifth stage of grief where we begin to accept a reality that doesn’t include our loved one.
Kessler also identifies a sixth stage – finding meaning – which I think is so important for anyone experiencing an intense loss (more on this below).
How to Help Your Children Through Grief
Let them feel – There is no right or wrong way to feel after losing a loved one. Communicate to them that it’s okay to feel sad, angry, anxious or nothing at all.
Do something special to remember – You may decide to bring your children along to the funeral or you may think it’s too much. Either way, do something special as a family to commemorate your loved one apart from the funeral.
We painted rocks with our dog’s name on it and dropped them at her favourite spots – the beach, the park, along our walking routes. You could also build a scrapbook or plant something that represents the person or animal you have lost.
Stick to routine – Children find comfort in structure. Although it is important to grieve over the death of a loved one, it is also important for your child to understand that life does go on.
Communicate freely about life after death – The idea of an afterlife can be very helpful to a grieving child. You don’t have to be religious to believe there is life after death, whether through an afterlife, reincarnation or any other belief. I found that my kids felt much better trusting their dog was watching us from above.
Finding meaning in grief – Although it’s hard to see the positives when it comes to death, it’s important to remind yourself and your children that without this loss, you wouldn’t appreciate how much you loved and still love. Grief, after all, is simply proof that the love is still there.
On those extra sad days, remind yourself (and your kids) of something Winnie the Pooh once said: “How lucky am I to have something that makes saying goodbye so hard.”
This little quote from a very wise bear made my kids feel a lot better when we lost our dog and I hope it helps you and your children too.
Where to Get Help
If you or your children are not coping, speak to your GP who can refer to you a therapist or psychiatrist. The Australian Centre for Grief and Bereavement (www.grief.org.au) has a list of websites and hotlines that may also help.
Explaining Grief: The Ball in the Box Analogy
One of the best ways to explain grief and how it works is through a ball in the box analogy. This is especially helpful for kids who are visual. You may want to draw a picture to show how the ball, the box and the pain button works. Grief is like this:
Picture a box. Inside there is a ball and on one side of the walls there is a pain button.
In the beginning, the ball is huge. It takes up most of the box and hits the pain button over and over. You can’t control it – it just keeps hurting. Sometimes it seems unrelenting.
Over time, the ball gets smaller and smaller. It ricochets around the box but is small enough to not always hit the pain button on the wall. Some days you won’t feel pain at all. But the downside is that the ball randomly hits that button when you least expect it.
This ball never disappears and when it does hit the pain button, it hurts just as much. But it happens less and less. Just like grief. While grief never fully goes away, with time, the feeling becomes less consuming and less frequent. Gradually, you are able to bounce without pain again.