I’m in all-new parenting territory right now, and it’s not fun territory to be in. Our sweet pug, Marti, died in early July from a short-but-swift illness. I’ve discussed her countless times here (most recently calling her our perfect family dog) and over on Fit Bottomed Girls, because she has been such a huge part of my life for almost nine years. Losing a pet or a loved one of any kind is really difficult, and the challenge is only compounded by the fact that my husband and I have been left explaining death — a difficult subject for adults to grasp — to two small kids. Not to mention that even though you want to collapse into a puddle of tears with a box of Kleenex, the kids still want to eat meals like usual and do all of their normal daily activities.
My kids, at 2.5 and 4, are still a bit too young to really understand what happened. They knew she was sick. They knew the vet was trying to make her better. But how do you explain the permanence of death to someone who doesn’t even understand the consequences of hitting their sibling?
My oldest was the most upset, mostly because she saw how upset we were. She asked a lot of difficult and really smart questions in the first days and continued to bring Marti up when I’d have one of my many teary emotional breakdowns. It took my youngest a few days to notice her absence, and when he did, he began asking where she went and questioning when she’d be done at the doctor. I’m by no means an expert at dealing with death or grief, but I have been around the grief block a few times and thought I’d share just a few lessons I’ve learned from dealing with life’s toughest lesson.
Dealing with Death: Tips for Comping with Kids and Grief
1. Be honest. I found a lot of good tips in the comments on this blog post, and I went by the philosophy of being as age-appropriately honest as I possibly could. I wanted them to know that Marti wasn’t coming back, but I didn’t want them to think that being sick or going to the doctor or having surgery necessarily meant that someone wasn’t coming back either. I didn’t want to compare it to sleep because I don’t need anyone in my house being afraid to sleep. I tried to be honest without saying too much and reassuring to ease any fears they might have.
2. Answer their questions. Kids are curious, and my 4-year-old asked super detailed questions, like where Marti’s body went after she died. While I’m sure I didn’t win any parenting awards stumbling over explaining cremation and ashes, I’d rather be open and honest to make sure my kids know that no question and conversation is off limits, no matter how clueless I feel about the subject at hand.
3. Say “I don’t know.” Don’t be afraid to say you don’t know the answer to something because we don’t always have all the answers, and some questions simply don’t have answers.
4. Don’t be afraid to show your emotion. Remember that it’s okay to show your kids that you’re upset — kids are quite adept at noticing sadness and tears even if you’re trying to be discreet. Showing your emotions demonstrates that it’s okay to cry, and it’s okay for them to express their feelings, too.
5. Take advantage of private time. Sometimes you just need to be alone to process grief and sometimes you need a princess-less, Lego-less place to cry. Excuse yourself when you’ve got help with kiddos to go have a good cry by yourself and let those emotions out. Cry when the kids are strapped in their car seats. Cry when they’re napping.
6. Take advantage of moments you feel good. Don’t feel guilty in those moments of happiness after a loss. It’s like the body is protecting you from constant grief and stress, and grief will come in waves for a long time to come. Enjoy the good moments when you have them, and hopefully they’ll get more frequent as the intervals between tears lengthen.
7. Do what makes you feel better. Like I said over on Fit Bottomed Girls, between the loss of Marti, my third sinus infection this pregnancy, and being 32 weeks pregnant, my fitness and healthy eating habits have taken a bit of a downturn. I’ve been indulging on Dunkin Donuts decaf iced coffees and Trader Joe’s cheese enchiladas; they’re not the healthiest coping mechanisms, but they’ve been a needed pick-me-up or meal when I didn’t feel like cooking through tears. I know eventually the health stars will align again; it’s just not the time at the moment.
Time really does heal, and I know it will continue to get better — it just sucks when you’re in the middle of it. Have you ever had to explain death to a child? What tips would you share? —Erin