The kitty lay dead in the street when we woke up. Shocked and saddened, we prepared a burial spot in the backyard. Gently and reverently, we gave thanks for the joy she had brought to our lives, then covered her tiny body. No one spoke of looking for another to take her place. Everyone took the loss seriously and somberly. Then it was over.
Our family scattered in a half-dozen directions, on to other things — fun, routine chores, sports, reading — life went on. Grief reentered from time to time, appearing more in one member of the family than in another, perhaps, but no visible interruption marked this loss.
I've been pondering how this situation, which is so common to all of us, is such a teachable moment. When a child is knocked down or bruised by loss or disappointment, the experience presents us with a prime teaching opportunity. Unfortunately, we all too easily miss our chance.
For example, we are tempted to quickly brush aside the death of our child’s pet as unimportant (because, as an experienced adult, we know that it matters little in the scheme of life.) Or we may resolve the matter too quickly by getting another pet to replace the one we lost. (You know why we do that, right? We are trying to 'fix' the situation and to cheer up the family.)
The lesson to be learned, however, is that neither of these two approaches strengthens our children or instills in them a long-range outlook that stands ready to help them in the future. Parents and teachers who respect and affirm the distress of their children listen to their feelings. They avoid quick fixes and superficial reassurances. They set a positive table for growth.
Children who are properly equipped to deal with pain discover, without realizing it, that they can face it head-on, survive it, and continue happily on with life. This happens because they have not been rescued, sheltered, or belittled; their pain has been taken with appropriate seriousness — not too much, and not too little. They’re treated as being strong enough to handle it.
Christian parents may enrich their own empathy by gently assuring their children that the Lord Jesus loves them and therefore hurts for them, too, in this, a major childhood loss. However, (another caution) we need to conscientiously avoid any suggestion that “God took the kitty.” That is crucial to the teaching here. Such a fatalistic approach lays the groundwork for some very dangerous theology.
Mature compassion allows discomfort. When we show our children that we are confident that they can face up to their pain, then we’re helping them to deal with it. We set the stage for a lifetime of dealing with tough situations head-on, rather than allowing them to deny or avoid them. Fundamental to this approach is the parent’s conviction that God has created in humankind, even children, the capacity to heal and grow stronger by facing up to hard times and by going through them.
In summary, then, may I remind you of couple of themes that you hear from me a lot.
Listen to feelings: your perspective as an adult is quite different from that of your children. Allow them to have their natural feelings.
Don't try to fix the situation: you can't undo to loss; you can't remove the pain, you can't change the circumstances. Instead, accept what has happened and deal with it in a loving way.