Trusting Your Kids To Deal With Their Pain: Lessons From Nibbles The Hamster
Until very recently, my 9 year old was the owner of a hamster called Nibbles. He was well-cared for but not an especially doted upon pet.
A couple of weeks ago we got up, only to find that Nibbles, who had been showing signs of aging for a while, was looking decidedly unwell. It was clear that he was close to the end and Cass, my son, began preparing his funeral in earnest.
Of course, the passing of a rodent is not a very significant death. But it was still a death, and talking to small children about dying can be scary, regardless.
How much detail should we share?
Do we commit to a belief, like heaven, that we may not subscribe to ourselves, to make it easier and less painful for them to deal with?
Cass was involved in the passing of his Grandad at the age of five, so this was far from his first bereavement.
Having also done lots of work around children and grief, I also know a bit about how children process death.
So personally I felt comfortable letting him lead his own journey through this one.
After briefly holding Nibby’s failing body in his final hours, Cass ironically immersed himself more in his hamster’s death than he had in his life.
He decorated a wooden box which became his coffin. He prepared a buffet for his humans of Nibby’s favourite foods (it was a very healthy wake). He picked flowers and gave a graveside speech.
No hamster could have wished for a better send off.
Why am I sharing all of this?
Because sometimes the discomfort we fear for our children’s emotional wellbeing is really our own.
We want to protect them from pain and distress, partly because we find their pain and distress too much to bear.
And when fix-it mode comes to the rescue, we don’t have to sit with our own questions about how to handle this for long. We’ve dealt with it.
This isn’t intended to cut deep, but the truth is that many of us struggle to allow space for our children’s big feelings because nobody did it for us when we were small.
Few parents I’ve ever supported with this recalled ‘permission to feel whatever they felt’ when they were growing up; sadness was sugar-coated, fear was ‘nothing to worry about’, ‘being brave’ was commended.
Another stumbling block around big feelings is that they’re often expressed through ‘bad’ behaviour.
So we can get hijacked by the need to pull our kids back into line, and in the process, miss what’s really in front of us: an emotionally overwhelmed child who simply doesn’t have the life experience or brain maturity to handle their feelings, or even recognise them, in the moment.
‘We grow though what we go through’; it’s a helpful mantra for helping our kids (and ourselves!) through these episodes.
The ‘through’ bit is the important part.
Loss and grief are often couched in the phrase ‘move on’, but ‘moving through’ is the difference that makes the difference.
Because ‘feeling is healing’, as they say. And if we don’t allow our kids to sit with these big, scary or uncomfortable emotions, they won’t learn how to recognise them, how to respond to them, to know that they will pass, that it won’t stay like this forever.
The fanfare for Nibby was all part of Cass’s processing: his understanding of, and his ability to deal with the finality of life.
His sadness didn’t last an especially long time. Partly because Nibby was not his world.
But partly because he was able to feel whatever he did about the end of Nibby’s life.
There was no sugar-coating, no consolation prizes, no praises for bravery, no effort to fix it.
Yet in difficult times, our instinctive response is to direct or manage the situation so our children ‘feel better’ as soon as possible.
It’s always well intended, and the alternative – not doing what we can to take their sadness away – can feel counterintuitive.
But what happens when life hurts our kids – as it eventually will – and we’re not there to sweep it under the carpet for them or give them a distraction?
This post isn’t just about normalising talking and thinking about death.
It’s about letting our kids feel all the feelings: scared, discomfort, grief and pain.
Truth Bomb: It’s often about letting ourselves feel all the feelings as well.
We don’t stop children from hurting by minimising, dismissing or closing the subject down. We stop them from having a space to process their hurts, share them and feel safe with them.
Trusting our kids to do that – and trust ourselves to let them, without protecting, shielding or rushing them through – is a mighty powerful gift we can give them.
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