Talking with children about loss of a loved one… Never easy!

Yesterday morning I got the sad news about my uncle’s passing. I just dropped off my son to his karate lesson and saw the message in my phone from my dad. Tears started coming down my face, I couldn’t help it.I decided to walk to the nearby coffee shop so my son would not see me crying. In the meantime I knew I needed to let the cry out but it was not the right time with all the people around. I threw myself into the bathroom and started sobbing. I prayed and told myself to be strong and got myself together. A little later I picked up my son and got back in the car to head home. He immediately picked up my vibe and asked why I looked so sad. I was like “darn it! I was doing my best to smile and talk with him. He is just too smart for me to hide things from”. I turned to him (car was not moving yet) and told him about what happened. I said “Honey, I am alright. I am sad because I loved my uncle but I know he is in good hands now”. His response was so gentle.  ” oh mom, I am so sorry for your loss. And granpa’s…” I realized how much I was in need of that statement. It was right on time and a big move from a little person. Let me tell you, it was not magic or an instant happening for him to react to the sad news with understanding and compassion. Both my husband and I worked for years for our son not to fall apart in a situation like this. It took a lot of work and a lot of understanding…

Our son SJ asked for a pet for a long time. Our life style, both parents working full time and a very long commute to and from our home, was not conducive to take on that kind of responsibility. The easiest pet would be fish we thought. It didn’t take us long to convince him getting a pet fish. We got four. He named them all. Three months later the first fish died. SJ was davestated. Crying, sobbing for more than an hour. Hugging, kissing, rubbing his back didn’t help. He would stop for a few seconds and then scream again saying “yellowwwww, why did you die??” It was heart wrenching seeing him so sad. But we knew this was part of life and Yellow woul not be the only loved one he would lose in his lifetime. I remember that night talking with my husband for a while. We decided t take this opportunity to talk to him about death and what happens and how we need to approach this type of situation. At the same time we knew he was only five at the time and we needed to bring everything down to his level and make it meaningful from his perspective. At the end of our conversation we decided that we needed any help we could get because we were not sure how to approach it and where to start from. I asked the librarian at his school and she sugessted reading a book about death and heaven. I read a lot of things about this subject given the fact that I helped many families and children going through this throughout my career. However, none of those tricks were working for me with my son. 

We read books, we talked about it, we allowed him ask us questions and he did have a lot of questions:

1. Can I die and see my fish and then come back home again?

2. Where did he go?

3. Who is going to feed him now?

4. Will he miss me?

5. Can he hear me or see me from above the sky?

6. What if he comes back as another fish?

Short but deep questions and not easy to answer… We decided to be gentle but as truthful as possible. We told him that he was fine up in the sky. Most likely he went to heaven. He could hear and see him, at least that was what we believed in. He would miss SJ and when it was time they would see each other again. Most likely… One thing we were sure about was he would not be able to come back home if he died to see Yellow and we as his parents would miss him dearly and would be sadder than he is for Yellow. Quite frankly, I was not sure if we were answering these questions correctly but we followed his lead and continued to read his ques. He decided to have a funeral for Yellow. We buried him in the front of the house right next to the tree. He sat there on his knees, praying and telling him to take care of himself there. For a while we did not talk about Yellow. Until one day…

Michael, a shiny black guppy named after Michael Jackson, was in the bottom of the tank. He was not moving. SJ saw it as soon as we came home from school. He said “Mommy! Michael is not moving, something is wrong with him”. His voice was trembling, he was looking at me tears welding up. I hugged him, he started crying “Noo, I loved him Mommy”. I continued to hug him saying ” I know, I did too. I am sad as well”. He looked up at me and asked if he Michael would see Yellow. I said yes. They would be together up there. I guided him to his praying corner by the library and we held hands and prayed together. Then I gently removed him from the tank and we buried him right next to Yellow. His cry was not as long as it was for Yellow. He was better controling his emotions and talking through them. This was a big step and a huge relief for us. 

We bought two more guppies. He now understands that animals or people do not live forever. When it is their time, they move on and leave this world as we call it “Earth”. We occasinaly talk about older people or sick people leaving this world eventually. We also talk about not being able to know and control everything in life. In the meantime, we need to keep our memories, happy moments and everything we learned with and from these loved ones. I am sure, this is why he was able to say “I am sorry for your loss mommy”. 

So… keep it simple and as honest and real as possible. Allow them to express their feelings, let them cry. Death is part of life and the sooner they accept it the better off they are.   

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