Children and Loss (of Special People or Special Things)

Featured Picture Book

A BALL FOR DAISY by Chris Raschka

(Available at your local public library or bookstores, including online stores.)

In A BALL FOR DAISY, Daisy the dog has a very special red ball. He plays with it, sleeps near it, and even snuggles with it. When his owner took him and his ball to the park one day, Daisy played ball with another friendly dog. Oops! Daisy’s playmate popped the ball. Daisy was sad –so, so sad. After days of living with a very lonely dog, his owner took him back to the park. Daisy met up again with the same friendly dog that had ruined his ball. This time the playmate had his own blue ball. Both dogs played happily. When it was time to go home, Daisy’s friend handed her the ball to take home – it was the friend’s way to make up for having popped Daisy’s ball. Daisy went home happy – so, so happy.

Parenting Thoughts 
Books without Words

Dr. Mom:  Can you “read” books without words to your children? Of course you can. It’s a great chance to make the book be whatever your child would enjoy and learn from. You can make the story apply to a situation that your child is dealing with. You can use words that your child understands or that have special meaning for your child. For example, did Daisy “snuggle” with her ball, “cuddle” the ball, or get “comfy” with the ball? What would your child call it? Those are the words you can use when you “read” the book. You can keep the story alive by changing it every so often. Your child may be happily surprised with a different story; she may be unhappy because the version she was used to was like her snuggly dependable blanket and she wants it to stay the same forever; or she may not even notice. Your child’s reaction to changing the story will help you understand more about how she will react to change in all aspects of her life – new people, places, experiences. If your child does have a favorite version, ask her what about the story she likes so much – another way to understand the type of person she is becoming. Does she like adventure, happy endings or being able to know the ending ahead of time?

You also can have your child tell the story every so often. Notice whether she adds characters and what kind they are – for example, a cat instead of a dog or a female owner in addition to the male owner? Does she add anger into the story? Does she have the owner do more to comfort the sad dog?   The story your child tells will give you clues about how she is thinking and feeling about things.

Darling Daughter:  Ezzy and I have a few favorite wordless books: SECTOR 7 by David Wiesner, MUSEUM TRIP by Barbara Lehman, RAINSTORM by Barbara Lehman, and THE SECRET BOX by Barbara Lehman.  Barbara Lehman has a few other wordless books that we have not “read” yet but I am confident that when we do, they will be added to our favorite list as well.  E.was a hard one to “read” wordless books to. She always wanted the story to be exactly the same as the first time and frankly, I didn’t pay enough attention to what I was saying to have memorized my version of the story.  Funny thing was when I asked E. what the story should be (when she would get upset at me for telling it the wrong way) her story was never the same way twice in some places – other places it was word for word the same every time. J I liked the wordless stories more than E. did. I saw and appreciated the room to grow your own imagination while E. didn’t want to have to work so hard to “read” the story.

 E. definitely has issues with change. She <and the family> moved around a lot in her toddler years. Dad was Active Duty and gone for years at a time. For her changing the story each time it was read was not comforting at all. Like Dr. Mom said, these types of books offer some interesting insight into the “reader.” I highly recommend them. Ezzy, however, not so highly recommends them – she tolerates them ;->)

Grief and Loss

In A BALL FOR DAISY, no one dies, but there is grieving – Daisy the dog is very sad about the loss of her ball. This makes me want to talk about two types of grief that people face (including children) – the loss of a person and the loss of important things.

In E.’s world, whether it is an important thing or a person, it is the same level of grief – dead is dead. If her special ball died, that would be just the same as if a person died. She gets so attached to things.

She recently was upset about my ratty old childhood stuffed animals.  I saved three of my childhood stuffed animals. I told myself it was to show my children, but when that time came – about 6 months ago – I really thought to myself, “Why did I keep these?”  They were so ratty and falling apart (even a little smelly).

I showed them to E., and she enjoyed seeing what my “lovies” were like.  When we were done (2 minutes max!), I put them in the pile to go to the trashcan.  Oh my goodness!  We had one totally upset 9-year-old. I took the easy way out – back in the storage bin with the 3 animals. <g> 

We even have tears and grieving when a favorite pair of socks wears out or is outgrown and has to be given up. Thankfully, it’s not every pair of socks, just the ones that have names like “froggy,” “turtle,” or “boo.” (Can you guess?  Boo had cute little ghosts on them.) Moral of the story – don’t let your kids name their socks!

Let’s start with loss of a person. I’m going to focus on loss from death, but remember that grief can be just as intense for a child when a person separates from them – for example, due to a move, military deployment, extended illness, or divorce.

It’s a good idea to think about how you want to handle death with your child before you are actually faced with it. So, if there is serious illness in your family or serious illness facing people you care about, think about what you will do when death comes.

I don’t believe there is a simple answer to how this should be handled with a child. The response that is best will depend on the maturity of the child and the specific circumstances. What is important is that the child be helped to understand the emotions and conversations he will be seeing and hearing around him. It will be important that he is reassured that he doesn’t have to be afraid about something awful happening to him or to his parents.

When thinking about how to handle death with your child, and how much of the sadness you want him to be aware of, remember that It is not helpful for a child to see death as no big deal in his family – it shouldn’t be business as usual. If the child is protected too much, he will not learn how to deal with this life event that everyone must face in some way throughout their lives.

When E. was 3, we had to put both our greyhounds down. E. went to preschool one morning and came home to a house with no dogs – dogs she had known since birth, but dogs she clearly had a sibling rivalry with (a topic for another post! J). I had spent days preparing what to say and how to handle telling her. I was shocked! She was so matter-of-fact about the whole thing. I told her it was OK to be sad, and she said, “OK” and was off on another topic. It took a long time for her to process what had really happened because every so often she would off-handedly ask when the dogs were coming back.  I’m not sure when the death and the not-coming-back part finally sunk in or was understood, but she eventually came to terms with the change/loss on her own.

Dr. Mom:  It is very common for a child this age to not fully understand that death is permanent.

When E. was 9, she had the same low-key response when her great-grandmother passed away. E. knew she had been sick, but when she passed, E.’s reaction was very matter-of-fact – a “that’s life” type of response. That seems to be her way of dealing – or not dealing with death.

She is deeply concerned with death, however. She gets worried about people dying. For example, when classmates are in the hospital for treatable conditions, she will come to me out of the blue in a tizzy about me or her dad dying. Or, after watching a science show on the solar system and the sun exploding, she came to me in a tizzy about the end of the world – I should have previewed that one ahead of time! So, I know she is feeling the grief, but she is not letting herself be overwhelmed by it or show that she is.

It is also common for children’s first concern when someone dies to be whether they or their parents will also die. You can reassure them about that. I think you may be onto something, when you say that E. isn’t showing she is overwhelmed when someone dies. She may not know how to show it. I think you have said before she is a perfectionist. She may want her grief to be shown in the “right” way – of course, there is no “right” way, but she doesn’t know that.

How much has she seen you grieve? You may need to teach her how by opening up your own emotions to her.

You can think about how much your child will be able to handle and make an effort to find the right balance of realizing death is sad, but also that there are ways to deal with the sadness. One way to create that balance is to limit how much the child is with the grieving adults. You may be able to arrange for him to spend short amounts of time with familiar nearby friends so he can get a break from the adult grieving.

A question that families are always faced with is whether the child should attend the service. There is no one right answer to that question. It is your choice, and you shouldn’t feel guilty no matter what you choose. Just make sure you make the decision based on what is best for the child, not what is more convenient for you.

Deal with any convenience issues by remembering that it’s OK to ask for help. In fact, asking for help is a powerful thing to do. It does not show weakness as so many of us mistakenly believe. For example, you can ask someone to care for your child away from the service, if you think he shouldn’t be at the service. On the other hand, if you want him at the service, you can ask someone else to take care of him while there which will allow you to focus on your own grief during the service. Or, perhaps you will want all of the family to be together at the service where you can comfort one another. All of these choices are OK. You will know what is best for you and your family.

We have a neighbor with a dying 1-year-old, so I know from recent experience that friends and neighbors are anxious to find ways to help. We are trying to find anyway possible to help and comfort the family, and when they ask for something there are 3 or 4 people in line waiting for the chance to help out.

Helping gives a person the chance to feel purposeful and useful at a time when it is so easy to feel useless.  So, if you are having a hard time asking for help, don’t think of it as a weakness or like you will be judged – think of it as you helping your friends/neighbors as much as they are helping you.

I guarantee they are trying to find ways of helping you, and if you tell them what you need they will most willingly take care of you.  Sometimes your friends/neighbors just don’t know how to help – that’s where you come in – don’t feel guilty letting them know what you need!  They want you to.

If your child is old enough, you may want to ask him what he wants to do. But, only ask if you are sure either answer is OK with you. Is it truly OK with you if he attends, and is it equally OK for him not to be there? Some children will be afraid to go because it is unfamiliar, and they are unsure about being so public about their sad feelings. Others will want to go to be part of saying good-bye to someone they love and to be part of what they can sense is a very important event for their family. Although they can’t always say so in words, some children know deep down inside that being there is part of belonging – which is a very strong feeling in children (and adults).

If your child is attending a service, be sure you or someone close to her coaches her on what will be happening and how she should behave. Remember, she’s never had this experience before. Even if she has attended a service before, this will be a new experience. She is older now, and she has different feelings now because the loss is of someone different.

Image courtesy of David Castillo Dominici\Free Digital

Image courtesy of David Castillo Dominici\Free Digital

Loss of Special Things

Now lets talk about the loss of a special thing. The loss of an object can cause grief – real grief – the same emotion that occurs with the loss of a person. When children feel this, they need comfort. Children need to know that others understand what they are feeling and that it is OK to feel those feelings.

Their grief shouldn’t be disregarded as not serious or important. Don’t try to tease, humor, coax, or use sarcasm to stop the child from feeling sad. “C’mon, man-up.” Don’t bribe him with replacements or try to get him interested in something else. “Let’s go to the pet store; there’s a puppy there just waiting for you.”

Also, in both cases of grief – loss of a person or an object – children’s feelings might be up and down like a rollercoaster. They may only be able to tolerate their grief for brief times, so you will see them refocus and act as though they are over it. They are not likely to really be over it – just taking a break from the intensity. Expect them to fall back into the grief over and over again. Perhaps for only brief times again, and perhaps when you least expect it. The grief may come out of the blue when you are least prepared to deal with it.

And, by the way, your adult grief can be on the same rollercoaster. It may overwhelm you at a time when you think you have recovered and when you least expect it. Some time after my mother died, I remember standing in line at the bank and becoming overwhelmed with sadness. Tears were rushing down my face. I didn’t have a clue why it was happening then. I couldn’t explain it to the people around me. It was embarrassing. In the end, I had to just accept my honest, human emotion. I had to embrace it and try to use it to understand myself better and become more accepting that I was now a motherless child.

(((HUGS))) for Dr. Mom

Image courtesy of David Castillo Dominici\Free Digital

Using Loss as Discipline

Discipline should not cause grief. If children have things or privileges taken away because of misbehavior, they no doubt will be disappointed, angry, frustrated, regretful, or unhappy, but these emotions are different than true grief. There are some things that are so extremely important to a child that they should not be used as a tool for disciplining.

Never purposely take away a child’s most important possession. I realize that sometimes the loss of the use of a toy can make sense as a consequence for misbehavior, but I am suggesting that there should be a short list of things that are just too important to be used this way. I’m talking about those things that are deeply important – things that the child’s self worth or sense of security is connected to.

For example, for an older child, it might make sense to refuse to let him attend a party. But, if that party is to celebrate his election as the student body president after a long hard-fought campaign, it takes on a different meaning to him. It’s not just another teenage party. So much of his self-worth is tied up in the election that it should be on that short list of things not to use for discipline. For a younger child, the one item she sleeps with every night or the special toy that her deployed military Dad gave her should be on the list.

It can be difficult to figure out what the few off-limits things should be, but it is worth thinking about. It will help protect the child’s trust in you. It will help him trust that you are not trying to hurt him, that you understand him, and that your love for him is more important than anything else.


Blog14 Sidebar2Over-protecting against sadness can be overindulgence on the part of a parent. (See “Saying ‘No’” in Teaching Kids to Wait, Part 1) for more about overindulgence. Children need to learn how to deal with sadness and disappointment. It becomes part of developing something called “grit.”

Man, oh man . . . this is one of the hardest thing to do!  You really have to think about your parenting decisions and keep telling yourself you are doing what is best for your children, it will help them as they grow up, and they will be ok.  Just keep telling yourself that over and over as you feel yourself wanting to give in and fix it and make it all better.

 When a child can overcome things that stop him from succeeding, he has “grit.” Grit is what helps a child know he is capable of getting his needs met and being successful at what he wants to do – no matter how tough things get. Allowing children to figure out they can live through sadness, solve problems, and find ways to make themselves feel better when they are sad or disappointed is a requirement for life. We all need a certain amount of grit to get through life.

Daily Parenting Tips” based on our featured book are posted daily.  Come back each day for another good parenting decision and how to practice it.

 Read All About It

GROWING UP AGAIN, Jean Illsley Clarke and Connie Dawson



HOW MUCH IS ENOUGH, Jean Illsley Clarke, Connie Dawson and David Bredehofts


 Surf the Internet:
  • self-esteem
  • kids making amends
  • kids and grief
  • kids and loss
  • overindulgence
  • grit
  • five stages of grief

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