Last week I officiated at two separate funerals (one for a dear co-worker) and I lost my beloved dog. It’s been a week of feeling vulnerable, trying to wrap my mind around how fast life can change, and absorbing the permanence of death. It’s been a long few days but they have not only been filled with heart-aching grief. They have also been filled with support, love, and the promises of God.
The hardest part of this week was guiding my six-year-old son through his first experiences with profound grief. He came with us to the funeral of his great-grandpa a few weeks ago. It was his first exposure to death, to a body, and to the rituals surrounding grief. Then the quick loss of our family dog (who was with us for eight years) left him in a tailspin as he tried to grasp what it meant. We had to put our dog down late in the evening after a swift illness, and I couldn’t sleep at all that night knowing we would have to tell our son in the morning. My fierce protective tendencies made it tough for me to share news that would cause him pain. Later that day, when my best friend called to ask me how I was doing, I remember saying, “Grieving for a dog is difficult, but helping a six-year-old grieve is really, really hard.”
It may sound strange, but being present with other grieving adults (and children) gave me the comfort of community last week. It reminded me I am not alone. Grief feels like such an intrusive stranger—and throws us into such unfamiliar emotions—that it’s easy to feel isolated as others continue on with their lives. At the funerals I was able to connect with others experiencing similar emotions and to witness parents struggling to comfort their children. I saw kids dissolving into tears one minute and playing the next, which reminded me my son’s expressions of grief are universal and natural.
I often get asked if it is appropriate to bring children to a funeral or a visitation. I always say yes—but don’t push them. Children need ritual. It’s important to take away any mystery and help them feel a part of a community. They benefit immensely from watching us model how to grieve, process and express emotion. At one of the funerals last week, children played around a casket filled with loving notes, bracelets and crafts they made for their grandma, whose body lay inside. All the children sat on the floor together in the front during the service at the funeral home. They cried, laughed and clung to each other as the adults did the same behind them. When they remember their time of grief, they will remember being included, saying goodbye, and being surrounded by many arms willing to hold them.
But oh, is it ever hard to walk with children through grief—and maybe some of that’s because they don’t let us look away from our own grief. They teach us. They need us to cry with them and to talk endlessly (at least in my son’s case) about death—yet I’m also able to give him the hope of God’s eternal promises. My son’s reminders to grieve are such a gift. Every morning my son greets our dog by name, and he says goodbye to her every night before he goes to sleep. Even though I feel pain in my chest knowing he is missing her, it reminds me that I miss her too, and that it’s ok to make her a part of my life in a new way. And there is always Good News.