Dealing with death

Central Church of Christ

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I was born in 1979, and Star Wars played a big part of my childhood.  With Ewoks on my lunchbox and Yoda on my shirt, I was a total Star Wars nerd.  That nerdiness expressed itself a few years ago when we adopted a sweet old hound dog from the shelter and named him “Obadiah Juan.”  My three boys enjoyed the “Obi-Wan” Star Wars pun, and I watched my kids share lots of love with this aging dog.  We joked that our mission in Obi’s life was to give him a good retirement home, kind of like the peaceful place Yoda enjoyed before his passing in Return of the Jedi.

It was tough when we saw Obi take a quick downward turn.  The day he stumbled around looking for a place to hide let us know the end would come soon.  Sure enough, Obi found his final rest in the front yard underneath the cedar tree.  Gabriel and Ethan understood well, having lost pets before.  It was Micah, our loveable giant of a third son, who struggled with grief most.

 As any dad would, I considered sheltering Micah from the sights of his dead dog lying in the front yard.  I contemplated burying Obi by myself, while Micah was sleeping that night just to ease his pain, remembering the old adage, “Out of sight; out of mind.”  I was tempted to protect my child from painful sights and memories that might produce grief.  I, myself, was struggling with my own grief for our loveable little Obi and his passing.  Yet it was Micah, himself, who reminded me of the need for us all to work through our grief when he said, “Dad, make sure I’m there when we bury him; I want to put flowers in his grave.”

Current research on children suggests that their needs to process grief are often at odds with our protective nature as parents.  Sometimes we avoid taking them to hospitals and funeral homes for fear of overwhelming them with grief.  Sometimes parents avoid telling about the death of a family member because of the fear of traumatizing a child.  For our family, holding a small burial ceremony complete with flowers in the grave was just what our Micah needed to work through the grief he was experiencing at the loss of his first dog.

Kids will experience trauma in life, and we, as parents, can’t protect them from it all.  What we can do is give them opportunities to grow and work through grief in a safe, loving, and stable environment when they are young.  Even Jesus knew He couldn’t protect His disciples from pain when He said, “In this world you will have trouble…”, so He taught and prayed for them.  Like Jesus, we can help prepare our little loved ones to handle the tough trouble that comes their way.

Whether it is the loss of a beloved pet, a tragic natural disaster, the sudden loss of a family member, or the gradual decline of an aging church member, we can help our children be prepared.  Here are some ideas to implement in your own life:

  • Don’t shelter a child from ALL trauma in life. Strive to override that protective parental nature by exposing your children to manageable doses of life’s trials as they come. Having a small funeral ceremony for a pet is a good way to give them manageable doses of loss.
  • Don’t dismiss the emotions accompanying a grieving moment; instead, validate the healthy expression of emotion during a loss. Let children know that it is OK to feel sad, cry, take a break to rest, or even feel angry as they experience grief. Take time listen to them while they express sadness and give them a shoulder to cry on should they need it.
  • At the same time, don’t be surprised if children seem unbothered at first, only to later be struck with sudden, strong emotional responses. Adults who have experienced grief know that it can be a complicated emotion, and, in children, it can be especially unpredictable. The unexpectedness of a child’s response to grief doesn’t make that grief any less real. Be there for them when the grief surfaces.
  • Offer them ways to process and record their grief and memories. For older kids, giving them a chance to journal or create a photo book can be very productive ways of moving them through stages of grief. Give younger children a tangible way of processing emotion, such as putting flowers in the grave or allowing them a chance to do their own little eulogy at the graveside.
  • Allow them to express grief the way you do. When Micah asked one of our church elders to pray for our dog Obi in his passing, the elder did an excellent job of not dismissing this prayer request for a dog. Instead, he shared with Micah his own heart at losing a pet and offered a beautiful prayer of thankfulness for all the loving moments we enjoy with our pets.  
  • During holidays or in poignant locations, give the child a way to honor the loved one they are missing. Give them the responsibility of decorating your pet’s grave, or involve the child in leading a special new tradition at Christmas, such as hanging a new ornament in memory of their passed family. This can help your child process their grief over time in a healthy way.

We will miss Obi.  Micah, especially, will be working through that grief for a little while yet to come, and, even though it is hard for him, it is a growing time for him.   Let’s give our children the opportunity to experience and express their grief in healthy and productive ways as they mature.  May the Lord bless you and your family in your times of grief.

“He heals the broken-hearted and binds up their wounds.” – Psalm 147:3     

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