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Moms Talk: It's Better to Have Loved and Lost

Helping your children deal with losses large and small.

I broke my daughter’s heart last week. It wasn’t my intention to hurt her, but I did it anyway, even knowing how upset she would be.

What did I do? I gave away her cat.

You don’t have to tell me how horrible and heartless I am. I already know. But this cat and her brother, whom we’d had for a year, both left our house last Tuesday. 

Looking at my right hand helps disperse any guilt that I might have had.

The girl cat, a gorgeous calico, was completely unpredictable. She peed wherever she wanted, including a pillow on which my mother was sleeping. She would purr or growl at people with no apparent rational for her choices. And she savaged my hand last Tuesday, when I tried to move her off the kitchen counter while she was stalking the toaster. 

The blood on the floor. The scar I have on my lip from a previous cat injury that she instigated. The antibiotics and rabies shot I’ve had because of her. All of this made it impossible for me to continue to keep this cat in a household with my seven-year-old child. Looking at my hand and realizing how close her face had been to that counter made our decision clear, if not easy.

We actually gave the crazy cat and her brother (I would not separate them) back to the farm in North Bend where they had come from. The people were thrilled to have them back. They’d only let go of the kittens because a death in the family made it impossible to imagine caring for two baby beings. There are no small children in the household, and the kittens will be able to go outside, which they love. All of this makes our choice much easier for my husband and I to live with.

Not so much for our daughter.

So how do I help her through her grief?

The most important thing for parents to remember is that although a kid’s body is little, their emotions are not. Margaret Atwood said, “Little girls are cute and small only to adults. To one another they are not cute. They are life-sized.” This is doubly true of a child’s emotions. Their grief is fully life-sized.

The second thing to keep in mind is that to a child, all grief is all encompassing. There is no psychological difference to a child between death or disappearance, or for that matter, moving or divorce. Children do not have a scale of grief. All endings are total and forever, or all endings are temporary and not understood.

Third, all reactions to loss are correct. For those adults who have had a family member die, you know that grief is not as simple as just working your way through Kübler-Ross’s five stages. DABDA may be a useful tool sometimes, but anyone who knows death knows that the knowledge that you are in the anger stage does not in any way mitigate the blinding fury with the universe that can overtake you at any moment.

Your child feels the same way, but has even less experience with how to handle an emotion that strong. Expect tears, yes, but expect back talk, sleeplessness, refusal to do school work, clinging to you, trouble eating, fights with friends, exhaustion, refusal to talk about the thing that makes them sad, and total withdrawal.

I’ll say it again. (This is my training as a counselor leaking out.) All reactions to loss are correct. Whatever your kid is feeling is appropriate. Let her feel it. It is our job as parents to give our kids the love and support they need, no matter how difficult it is for them to receive it.

To end with another quote, the psychiatrist Harold Hulbert said “Children need love, especially when they do not deserve it.” This is never more true than when they are acting out because of grief. Understand your child and love her, and show her that love even when (or especially when) it’s hard.

My daughter doesn’t want to talk about the cats right now. My plan is to respect that, but also to give her the extra love and attention I know she needs. In fact, I’m going to go hug her right now, and squeeze her tight with my mangled hand that hurts less than her heart.

Tim Quinn October 21, 2011 at 04:34 PM
Give her a hug for me too.
Chris Macbeth November 04, 2011 at 10:01 PM
I had to do the same thing with my oldest daughters cat after it scratched our then 5 month old on the face very close to her eye. She was just laying on the floor and the cat got her. This cat had previously scratched the then 4 year old on the face a couple times. She did not like to be hugged. I talked to the older daughter and said we would be taking her back to the shelter we got her from and they would find her another family. She was not happy but it helped that I let her pick some toys and tell me what to tell them about Clawdia. We had two cats the other one we adopted at the same time is very good with the kids then became her cat. There was a couple days of tears and she still talks about her after 2 years. It was hard to see her so upset but people before pets. In the end I think that it was also better for the cat too. I am sure your kitties are very happy. Maybe you can take your daughter to visit or ask the people to send a note about how happy they are.

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