We just finished reading the book My Dog Skip by Willie Morris. It is a touching story about a boy and his dog. I had seen the movie several years ago and thought our sons would enjoy it.
At the end of the book, the author speaks of Skip’s passing and how Skip is buried not under the elm tree, but in his heart. As I read the last two pages to my sons I reflected on pets I had had growing up, and one in particular that reminded me of Willie and his relationship with Skip. Socks was my cat of 18 years when she passed. I had had her since I was 11 years old. She was a member of the family, gave unconditional love, seemed to be attuned to my feelings (showing great empathy and sympathy), and has been solely missed since her passing.
As I read the last few pages of My Dog Skip, my voice cracked and tears came to my eyes. I tried to hold the tears back, taking deep breaths and pausing, but it didn’t work. I cried and my kids saw it.
My kids asked, “Are you crying?” to which I replied, “Yes, because it’s sad.” They both looked at me quizzically for a moment. It was the first time they had seen their mom cry openly in front of them, tears of sadness. Prior I had only shared tears of joy. I continued to read the last few sentences, trying but failing to hide my feelings. When I said “The End” my oldest son burst into tears, and continued crying. My husband and I tried to console him. At first I thought he was crying because I had been crying, but soon understood that he was crying because my crying confirmed what the book told us. Skip was dead.
I believe this is the first time my son grasped that things don’t live forever. It’s a hard concept to understand as a child. He started to understand that we all will die one day, even him. He was very upset that my husband and I would die one day. I know I felt the same way at the idea of losing my parents as a child, and still get teary-eyed thinking about that happening in the future. It’s inevitable, but I still doesn’t make it any easier.
What struck my husband and I about what occurred was how we handled the situation. First I attempted to talk to my son about death. I didn’t try to sugarcoat it or promise that it wouldn’t happen for a long time, but reminded him that life is a gift, that we need to take steps to try to live as long as possible eating healthy things, exercising and being safe, but we also need to figure out how to enjoy it while we’re here. I explained that we have to treasure the time we have together and work to make the most of it while we have it together. He seemed to understand all that I was saying, but it didn’t stop the crying. It was upsetting to see him this way, and a part of me wanted to say whatever was needed to get him back to a calm or happy state, but I recognized the importance of the discussion we were having.
At one point, my son got angry with himself for continuing to cry and said, “I can’t wait until I’m older and braver.” “Why do you say that?” I asked. “Because I’ll be braver, and won’t cry so easily.” I reminded him that Mom is much older and still cries. He seemed to think about this for a minute as if understanding it might be okay to feel his emotions as he grew older. What a great moment to be a part of.
My husband sat with my son following me and talked to my son about death. After a while, and seeing that continuing to talk about death was only going to lengthen the time our son was crying, he tried to turn the subject to happier things, upcoming trips we have planned, and making breakfast in the morning. While it didn’t completely work, we knew we needed to give our son some time to work through his newfound knowledge and feelings in his own way.
It wasn’t easy, but was necessary.
As a parent, we all want to make our child happy and hate to see them upset. A typical reaction is to help your child “get over” the negative feeling and push them back into a positive one, but that comes at an expense of your child missing the opportunity to gain a needed tool to deal with negative emotions as they get older. Being able to help your child feel the negative feeling and work through it is a powerful tool we can provide. It might not feel comfortable for us as parents, but many things about being a parent aren’t.
It’s good to cry, it’s good to show our kids we all experience feelings, even the hard ones as adults. It makes us vulnerable to each other. It makes our bonds stronger while we’re here on earth and beyond “The End.”
How do you help your child experience their emotions? How have you helped your child deal with the death of a loved one?