Follow the Child
My first real loss was of my beloved pet dog, Muppet, when I was 11 years old. I was lucky because it was not a parent or sibling and lucky because she had lived a long and happy life. I was also lucky because it gave me a chance to practice grieving properly.
Grieving is a strange process: it is simultaneously totally natural and instinctual, yet disarmingly foreign-feeling and disorienting. Managing loss is a skill that we begin practicing from the moment we are born. As we gain independence from our parents, go off to school and then end each school year, we are learning to say goodbye and to deal with all the emotions that accompany loss, however small.
For some reason, adults seem to lose their life’s accumulation of loss-wisdom when they are charged with the daunting task of helping a child say goodbye. At times we can—with the best of intentions—act too quickly to sanitize our children’s wounds.
Muppet died one morning while I was at school. By the time I got off the school bus that afternoon, my parents had scrubbed and sanitized our home. Knowing I would be devastated by her death, my well-intentioned parents had removed all signs of Muppet, lest I become triggered by her abandoned food bowl or empty bed. But what I wanted most was to collect and hold on to all those things that were a part of her: mementos of her life.
At 11, I was old enough and brave enough to communicate my deep and silly wish to recover the tuft of her fur that she had left on the rug in my room. My parents redeemed themselves by spending a few hours that night digging through the trash until we recovered the matted fur. Then, much to my mother’s chagrin, I demanded we have Muppet buried in a pet cemetery an hour’s drive from home where we would hold an elaborate ceremony orchestrated by (of course) me.
As parents, we struggle so mightily to shield our children from the excruciating pain of grief that we sometimes forget what might be best for them. If only we can control our own anxiety and desire to make it all better long enough to pause and listen, we might hear our children telling us what they need. Children, in their simplicity, can have clarity about death and how to appropriately honor a passing. They are not weighed down as we are with complexity and complication surrounding an adult’s understanding of death.
As weird and silly as I felt digging that clump of fur out of the trash, I suspect I am not alone in my child-self’s desire to preserve mementos of my dearly departed. It’s no secret that children are natural collectors, hoarding items that they consider valuable treasures, even if we don’t see it. In the event of a loss, this tendency to collect keepsakes may intensify. If it does, don’t worry.
Importantly, many children fear that they will forget those who have died. Memories fade over time, especially in minds that are still developing at the time of the loss. This is scary for children who cling to memories as their only way to feel connected. If a child you love has experienced a major loss, take a breath, try to resist the urge to scrub and sanitize, and try to hear- and indulge - your child’s desire to select and keep her own mementos. Kids can teach us a lot about healthy ways to grieve.
How does your own pain color how you deal with your child’s loss?
Dr. Emily McClatchey is a child psychologist and mother of three young children. She is the founder and creator of Kidolences,® specially-formulated care boxes to help kids manage loss and change. Send your love to a child at www.kidolences.com.