Friday, September 28, 2007

Teaching Your Child About Death

This is not really a "school" topic, but a life experience. And our stay at home children will experience things like death in a different way when they are at home all day. Yesterday, we lost our fifteen year-old dog, Jessie. While we knew the day would come, we did not expect it to come so suddenly when she was otherwise healthy. One day she was just old; the next day, she was ready.
Jessie is not the first dog our children have lost. Two years ago, our Jack Russell Sandy was hit by a car. This was very devastating for a number of reasons. First, it wasn't Sandy's time to go. Second, we weren't prepared for it. We woke up, found out she had gotten out during the night, and found her on the street behind our house. In a way, I was more angry than sad. I was mad at her for leaving her nice, warm bed just because she could, and following her instinct to chase after cars. She had to travel through thick brush for quite a while to finally reach the lights of the traffic. Didn't she know what she meant to us, and didn't she want to stay with us?
Even though we knew it was Jessie's time, because she had been with us so long it made it especially hard. Ironically, when we moved from Georgia to Kansas, we planned on trying to find her a home to stay in Georgia because we figured she would not live much longer. When Sandy got killed before we moved, the kids would NOT let us leave Jessie behind. Little did we know that she would make the drive across country and live two more years!
We did have a bit of a warm up for Jessie's death, when our last frog from our tadpole project died the week before. My son cried when I told him that the frog was dead, but then quickly said, "Can I get fish now?"
Kids are resilient, and kids view death very differently from adults. I remember when my children's great grandmother died how happy they were for her. This is because I had prepared them ahead of time and we talked about what heaven was like. When I gave them the news, they excitedly said, "Oh good! She is with Jesus now...and Sandy!" She was, after all, 96 I believe, and was ready to see all her friends who had already passed. Of course, adults only think about how they will miss the person who has died, and of all of the memories of that person. We take it more personally, I think.
It is very helpful to talk about death with children during times that they aren't losing someone. My kids know that sometimes babies, children, and even parents die. I do not get emotional when the topic comes up, but I tell them in a matter of fact sort of way that sometimes these things happen, and we don't know why. Since children see heaven as a really cool place, it takes a little of the fear and mystery out of death. Each child has their own picture of what heaven will be like, which is painted by experiences and information shared by loving adults. If I ever start to imagine what I would do if I lost one of my children, I cry when I am not around them. They do not need to fear death, but they need to know that it is part of life.
My son (6) went with Jessie to the vet, but did not view the euthanasia itself. I believe children should get to see this if they want to. When the animal's pain is taken away, a peaceful, loving demeanor is what appears, and this can be very healing for a child, especially if they have watched the animal suffer at all. My daughter (almost 5), upon being told that we had an appointment to have Jessie put to sleep, said, "Mommy, can we go to Wichita today and pick out a new puppy?"
We'll get the fish, and probably a new dog soon. Knowing the risk of having pets (and more specifically losing them) does not make us want to give up on loving critters and making them a part of our family. We all know that the love they give back is far worth the risk that one day we will lose them!

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