Adapted from a recent online discussion.
Dear Carolyn: A few days ago, one of our cats was struck and killed by a car. She is now buried in the garden beside two other cats who were old and sick and had to be euthanized.
One of our children, 6, is taking this very hard (he was here when the other two died). Yesterday, he wrote each departed cat a note and added a request that they write back, and he left the notes where they were buried. This morning, he was thrilled to find the notes gone and is convinced, and deeply hopeful, the cats will write back.
So my question is about how bad it might be, or what long-term harm it might cause, if the cats “write” back. No response might help teach about accepting the reality of death, or it could crush him. On one hand, if there were a note saying they miss him and such and that this is the one note they get to write before they have to move on, it would make him so happy (I certainly would not go for a long-term correspondence with the dead cats). On the other hand, this level of deception seems worse than Santa.
My wife and I are atheists, and although we don’t preach atheism to our children, we wouldn’t want such a note to become the fraudulent basis of religious faith. Especially, we worry about the emotional harm it might cause if he learns the truth of the note before he is old enough to understand why we did it. Any thoughts?
Letters From Beyond?
I wouldn’t write back “from the cats.” Not that I think some terrible process would be set in motion if you did, but instead I think the best ways to cope arise from what is around us naturally, because those can be replicated when we need to cope again in the future. Stepping in here would just postpone your son’s chance to learn to manage his grief.
Again – I don’t see that as having terrible long-range consequences. However, in my experience, raising kids presents parents with almost daily opportunities to take a shortcut that postpones the harder stuff till later, which we opt for at our peril. So, whenever there’s an easy way to avoid taking a shortcut, avoid the shortcut.
In this case, “easy” isn’t so easy emotionally, but it is straightforward and, more important, accessible to a 6-year-old: Just say that people and animals that have died don’t speak or write like living people do. Instead they speak to us through our hearts and imaginations. That’s why people leave flowers and notes and gifts at graves, as he did for the cats – survivors say their part in a living person’s way. Then they get their answers through memories and good feelings and love.
To keep him occupied, you can then steer him toward making a marker for the graves. Having something tangible to do is always helpful for kids too young to understand what they’re feeling, much less articulate it. In time his attention will turn elsewhere – that’s the gift of the young – so really you just need to keep him moving forward during these upcoming days.
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