It is never easy to lose a loved one, no matter how old you are. But for a child, it can be especially difficult to understand.
A little while ago, our precious fur-baby, Leo, passed away. He was a 14-year-old American Bobtail Cat and he was one of a kind.
He came to live with us about a month after my husband and I married. He found us and adopted us; we really had very little to do with the whole thing. He charmed his way into our lives, our home, and most importantly, our hearts. He was smart. He chose his own water dish from my crazy assortment of food storage containers and he greeted us at the door. Everyday. Without fail. My husband jokingly nicknamed Leo “Houdini” because he could get in and out of tight spaces, hide in really interesting places, and appear and disappear in less than the blink of an eye.
Leo helped us through the miscarriage we suffered. He would not leave my side, unless it was to comfort my husband, who after the confirmation of the miscarriage, felt a need to carry Leo in his arms a lot. Leo was also one of the first to recognize that I was expecting another baby. His favorite place to lie was snuggled up to my belly with his front paws around me, purring. At one point, we even commented that perhaps our baby would be born knowing how to speak “Cat”. . .
Little did we know. . .
From the moment they met, Leo was such a proud “big brother”. He loved to watch our daughter sleep, and he was happy to finally have someone in the house that loved milk as much as he did. They were best friends. Even when she got big enough to tote him around like a sack of potatoes, do pretend (but nonetheless intense) medical examinations on him, and dress him up for tea parties, he still thought she was wonderful. Never did he scratch or bite her. If he’d had enough play time, he would politely meow and hide. (Okay, okay, so maybe at that point his meow had a slightly-less-than-polite tone.) He wouldn’t hide for long, though and they’d be back at playing pirates or princess fairies again in no time.
That all changed on April 20th. Leo had not been feeling well for the couple of weeks leading up to his death. He wasn’t eating very much, was lethargic, and had become super-thin. We decided, after much prayer and research, that it was time to help Leo find the Rainbow Bridge. We took him to our vet and they let me hold him as he slipped away. It was a bittersweet moment, but one I will cherish always. Our daughter did not accompany us to the vet, so later that evening, we needed to have a talk.
We sat her down and reminded her about how sick Leo had been the past little while. She acknowledged that and asked, “Did Leo die?” We answered and she began to cry. I held her and petted her hair and told her how much Leo loved her and how happy he was that they knew each other. I told her that all the good, fun, and sweet memories that she has of Leo would keep him alive in her heart always. She then did something pretty special. She went upstairs and brought back a stuffed kitty cat that she affectionately calls “Stuffed Leo”. She transferred her love, her grief, and her playfulness onto this stuffed cat. She talked to him about Leo. Even now, when she begins to miss Leo, she finds that stuffed cat and holds him until she feels better.
She also did this when my grandfather passed away in December of 2015. She transferred her love and emotions onto a great big Christmas bear, one that she still sleeps with every night, named Papa Bear. Even though she was not quite three when he died, she and my papa had an incredible bond. He taught her counting, monetary denominations, colors, and shapes. They watched cartoons together and listened to music together. He even made up a song for her that she still sings. Her memories of him are vivid and alive, which I am grateful for.
I learned through research that this act of transference in children is normal and healthy. It is a built-in mechanism for some children and indicates emotional maturity and strong imagination. It also helps to preserve the memory of the dead loved one. I am thankful that she is so intuitive and sensitive. I hope she will never lose those attributes and that they will only be strengthened.
If you find yourself in a similar situation, here are some tips on how to help your children cope:
- Be available to your children. Physically, mentally, psychologically, and spiritually — just be there.
- Answer their questions as honestly and as simply as you can. If necessary, seek the advice of a counselor or minister.
- Allow them to grieve in their own way. Everyone grieves differently, so as long as they are not hurting themselves or anyone else, allow them the opportunity to work their feelings out.
- Encourage them to look at photos and videos of the loved one. It can help keep them connected and can make death less scary.
- Help keep memories alive. Talk openly about the loved one and allow your child to talk about him/her whenever they need to.
To live in hearts we leave behind, is not to die. – Thomas Campbell