Saturday, February 19, 2011

Teaching Moments

    Your companion animal is probably your child's best friend.  Whether they grew up together or one came first, there is no doubt of the special love between child and animal.  When the animal is ill or dying, it is tempting to keep the child away or sugarcoat the experience, but in doing so we miss a very big opportunity to teach our children about caring for those in need, healthy grieving, and recovering from a loss.

     We may be so overwhelmed with our own struggles, the physical demands of caring for an ill pet, the mental strain of making tough decisions and being well-informed, or our own grief that it is hard to think about this as a Teaching Moment for our children.

     Keep in mind that most things that happen as an animal is terminally ill or dying are not an emergency.  Yes, there is on-going often intensive care and there can be crisis moments, but most of the day to day progression of the illness or age happens slowly, or slow enough, for us to take a break and catch our breath.  Make sure you do this at least once a day.

     When children are involved, one of the very most important things we can do is be a good model.  Showing them how to take a break, stay calm and become more centered is a huge step, even if you are unable to do anything else.  As you know - for better or worse - they are keenly aware of your feelings and responses.  Everything you do - good or bad - is something they will model.  What do you want them to see?  If you are anything like me, you want your children to be caring and compassionate.  You want them to learn how to handle an emotionally charged and difficult situation and you want them to learn to grieve.

     I'm pretty sure I don't have to tell you that crying is important.  As they say, crying gets the hurt out.  Crying expresses emotions rather than bottling them up.  If you want your children to feel comfortable crying, sometimes you have to let them see you cry.  Talk to your children.  "Mommy is sad today because I see that Buddy is not feeling well."  And ask questions, "How are you feeling today?"

     Feelings change day by day and moment by moment - both for us and for our children.  Be prepared for your own emotions to fluctuate and for those of your children to do the same.  This is fine.  This is normal.  Don't feel bad about it or try to hide it.

     Children will feel a wide range of emotions just as you do.  Asking them about their feelings helps, but so does sharing yours.  And sharing how you deal with it.  "Sometimes Daddy feels so frustrated that we can't make Fluffy better that I just want to scream.  Do you ever feel like that?  I think I'll go to the top of the hill and have a good yell.  Would you like to come with me?"

     Often art can help children to open up, express their feelings, demonstrate ideas that are hard for them to verbalize.  It can also be a terrific springboard for discussions.  And with some children, it may be a great way for them to explore their feelings in the quiet private way they need.  There are many wonderful resources for children that incorporate coloring or drawing with questions and teachings about grief.  I particularly like the book, Saying Goodbye to Your Pet by Marge Eaton Heegaard.  I like it because it breaks the questions down into sections and offers both a place to express and advice in easily understood terms.  You can find this book, and similar ones, on line, at your library and in bookstores.

     You can also make your own.  Gather a few pieces of paper and put titles on the top such as:

   - things I love(d) about my animal
   - things I (will) miss about my animal
   - the funniest thing that ever happened with my animal was
   - I feel angry/sad/frustrated/lonely/afraid about my animal's illness/death because
   - here are some things I do to make me feel better
You get the idea.  Ask open ended questions that give your child an opening to explore and express.  Then talk some more about what they have written, drawn or said.

     Keep the lines of communication open, model behaviors you want to encourage and have the courage to show your own emotions.  These three things will go far in teaching your children about loss and how to move through and beyond it.

     If you have other suggestions, we always love to hear them!

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