When my mother died last month, I wasn’t sure what I might do to help my ten-year-old son. I made the choice not to hide my grief. I could see Zed struggling with ways to comfort me. Extra hugs. Extra I love you’s. Three days after her death, we went to visit my father in Oregon and Zed saw for himself that she was gone. His grief was intense, his tears coming as he lay alone in the quiet of his bed. My father was a comfort to him, helping him experience his emotions and then finding a way to rest his tears for another day. I write about the impact of that experience in my My Boy’s Grief.
When to talk about death?
At first, when Zed was young, I was afraid of how he might react to death. I tried to hide the existence of death, deeming him too young and immature to handle its enormity. So I zoomed past the road kill. I didn’t tell him the neighbors cat had been killed by a mountain lion (yes, we live in a rural town.) I avoided talking about the boy we knew who had drowned.
But when Zed was three and found the dead quail in the driveway, he wanted to know more. I asked what questions he had and admitted when I didn’t have an answer. He showed me he was ready to talk about death by the questions he asked.
What can we do to help our children with inevitable death and grief?
I recommend utilizing small experiences to help guide them into this often unknown territory. The quail was a perfect example. While it was of importance to him, I knew that it wasn’t as big as losing a pet or a friend or a family member.
The simple experience of the quail gave us a chance to talk about death. We got to practice for bigger, harder events.
Move the Grief
Zed cried on and off as we talked about the quail’s life. After this reflection, it seemed time to take the grief and move it into concrete action. Zed wanted to bury the quail. We found a shoe box, lined it with soft cotton, and put the bird inside. We dug a shallow hole and covered the box with dirt. Then we sang “My Bonnie Lies Over the Ocean,” (his choice) and spoke a few words about the bird’s life (how he must have eaten lots of worms and bugs, played with other quail, sang a tweety morning song, had quail babies of its own, etc.) Then we sang an improvised good-bye song.
It felt like dipping his toe in the waters of grief.
A More Impactful Death
Zed had another chance to practice with the death of our dog, Ziggy, which affected him much more. We made a hanging altar box of her special things – her leash and dog tag, a favorite rawhide, photos, and a poem we wrote. We framed a photo of her running in the sunset on the beach and hung them side by side. We spread her ashes at the Yuba River where she loved to play. Zed moved through these activities with curiosity and questions. It wasn’t until he was in his bed at night that the tears would come and one of us would hold him in our arms and cry together.
A Respectful Ritual
One of the main parenting themes I write about on my Parenting Groove blog is Respect. What better way to respect those who have died than with a well-thought out ritual. Let your child have a role in the planning and the ceremony itself. Here are some steps we took:
1) Honor the dead animal by putting its body back into the earth.
2) Create a simple, heartfelt ceremony, with song, prayer, poem or a few special words – whatever comes from the heart and involves your family’s beliefs and traditions.
3) Provide closure by saying good-bye.
4) Accept tears and sadness if they are present. Encourage your child to talk about any feelings they are having. Let the sadness move through and remember a good time you had together.
The Stakes Get Higher
Losing his grandmother was the first close experience of human death for Zed. He called on his acquired tools and those experiences where he had already practiced grief – knowing that he could survive it. He had the loving support of his grandfather who encouraged him to have his tears, but also to get rest and sleep to be fresh for the next day, just as his grandmother would have wanted.
A Life of Emotions
I wonder if Zed will continue on this path of emotional maturity, where he experiences an emotion, lets it ride through him in whatever timeline it takes, and then moves on. I’m curious when and if he will hold on to those emotions, a tactic that has not worked so well for me. I aspire to his ability to not get stuck, to be with what is present and then move forward.
One of the tools we practice is a set of four questions we call, Does It Matter? This technique is helpful in discerning which emotions to keep working with and which to let go of.
Practice Grief Openly
Practicing grief in small, manageable ways will lay the path for the bigger, harder, and inevitable grief that we all encounter in life. Grief can be so personal. And sometimes very hidden. What we hide does a disservice to our children. The healthy, open ways we deal with death in our culture should be shared.
Let grief out of its shell.