For most children, their first experience with grief comes with the death of a beloved family pet. When Zoe the eight-week old puppy dies of parvovirus or Tweety the budgie stops singing his morning song, a child experiences profound and lasting loss for the first time in their young lives.
Children want and need to know about death, yet we are often reluctant - even squeamish - when talking about it. Conversations with kids about death can be extremely difficult, but they are so important. Helping children understand the death of their pet may arm them with the skills they need to cope and grieve effectively when someone they love dies.
Everyone experiences a sense of shock when death occurs, and this is especially true for children. They have no prior experience, and usually no information to help them comprehend what "dead forever" means.
Death and grief are extremely difficult human emotions, therefore, there is no right or wrong way to deal with death. As adults, our reactions to death are a product of societal attitudes and the beliefs and culture of the family from which we came.
When a family member dies, children express their grief differently depending on their age. An infant may become irritable and fussy. A pre-schooler lives in a magical world, so death isn't permanent for them. They may alternate between seeing death as temporary and reversible to understanding that death is forever. Children ages six to 12 have a more mature understanding of death and teenagers have an adult understanding of death, but has fewer coping skills.
Let's look at Justin's first experience with death:
Justin's is 5 years old and lives with his mom and dad and brand new sister Sarah. One morning, Justin wakes up to mom's tears and runs to Sarah's room to find mommy and daddy crying. Daddy ushers Justin out of the room and tells him quietly that Sarah isn't going to wake up today.
Justin is scared and confused. Justin has never seen Daddy cry. Dad is his hero. He makes Justin feel safe. What could be so horrible that it would make Daddy cry? Daddy spends the morning talking to Justin while mom and Grandma Jane go in and out of the house, crying and Sarah is taken away by strange people that Justin does not know.
After lunch, Justin goes to Sarah's room to look for her. They always take an afternoon nap together. But Sarah isn't there. "When will Sarah be home?" Justin asks his daddy. Daddy holds Justin as he tells him "Sarah won't be coming home, honey, Sarah has died. She stopped breathing and her heart stopped beating. We're all so very sad. Why don't we sit together and remember some of the funny things she used to do." Justin turns his blue eyes to look at Daddy "No, it's okay Daddy. She'll be home later."
As the days go on from the time of Sarah's death, mom and dad are caught up in funeral preparations and Justin continues in his insistence that his sister will come home. As family gathers and the days get closer to the services his parents remain with growing concern for his belief.
Parents should be aware of normal childhood responses to a death in the family. It is normal during the weeks following the death for some children to feel immediate grief or persist in the belief that the family member is still alive. But long-term denial of the death or avoidance of grief is unhealthy and can later surface in more severe problems.
Once children accept the death, they are likely to display their feelings of sadness on and off over a long period of time, and often at unexpected moments. The surviving relatives should spend as much time as possible with the child, making it clear that the child has permission to show his or her feelings openly or freely.
Parents with children experiencing grief should:
- Provide age-appropriate information regarding the loss
- Give the child space for them to emote. (Encouragement to discuss his or her innermost fantasies, fears, thoughts, and feelings.)
- Be aware of their own emotional availability: Your child needs someone who will listen. Reach our for support from others if you are unable to provide that support to your child at this time.
Warning signs include:
- changes in sleep, appetite, school performance, or social interaction
- verbal/non-verbal messages of wanting to join the deceased (drawings, behaviors, or statements)
Keep In Mind: Children need to be assured that death is not the end-that love never dies. Just because the person is no longer living, doesn't mean we don't still love them. You are the expert of your child and always reach for assistance from a professional if you have any questions.
Dr. Charles Sophy currently serves as Medical Director for the Los Angeles County Department of Children and Family Services (DCFS), which is responsible for the health, safety and welfare of nearly 40,000 foster children. He also has a private psychiatry practice in Beverly Hills, California. Dr. Sophy has lectured extensively and is an Associate Clinical Professor of Psychiatry at the University of California Los Angeles Neuro-Psychiatric Institute. His lectures and teachings are consistently ranked as among the best by those in attendance.
Dr. Charles Sophy, author of the "Keep 'Em Off My Couch" blog, provides real simple answers for solving life's biggest problems. He specializes in improving the mental health of children. To contact Dr. Sophy, visit his blog at http://drsophy.com