Managing Grief with Kids

How do you explain death to your children?  How do you expect kids to handle grief?  Do you expect them to understand your own sorrow?

We recently had two major changes to our family in the last two weeks.  First, my wife’s maternal grandmother passed away.  She was the last of our boys’ great grandmothers.  They had the privilege to see her within the last year; but as they lived in a different state and discussions between our two households were not as frequent as we may have preferred, their understanding of her passing was difficult to assess. She was an incredible woman, having been valedictorian of her high school class in 1946, first woman to be Editor-in-Chief of the University Daily Kansan student newspaper in 1950 at the University of Kansas, and held an active pilot license for 40 years.

Then, this last week one of our cats died.  He was 10 with a history of health issues, and we still feel blessed for the time we had with him.  However, he was our first “baby.”  I think when it comes to pets you tend to fall into two different categories – your pet is just an animal OR they are your child/sibling.  We fall into the latter.  This loss hit us hard.  The routine and frequency of having him around was suddenly lost.  

Before I go on, I do not want anyone to think that the loss of my wife’s grandmother is any way less important than the loss of our cat. Obviously, this loss affected me and my wife more than our children due to the experiences we had with her in the past.  But the loss of the routine of our cat, Landon, being around was much more permanent in their eyes.

Our 7-year-old took the news with difficulty.  He had the immediate tearful remorse, with hugging and sobbing as one would expect with the loss of a loved one.  He discussed how he already missed him, couldn’t understand why he had to die, etc.  This was tough for us to discuss with him as my wife and I had already been crying for most of the day prior to picking him up from school.

The reaction by our 4-year-old was quite different.  When we explained to him what happened, he simply responded, “Oh.  I guess he died.”  He then moved on with his day.  Although this was an expected response from him at his age, it was still difficult to receive it.  How can he not be devastated at a loss of a pet?  How can he not comprehend the gravity of the situation?  Add that on top of losing their Great-Grandmother the week before – things should be extremely difficult!

Well, that is the issue.  We all handle grief in different ways at different ages.  Our 4-year-old does not have the ability to fully comprehend the concept of death.  He knows WHAT it means, but does not fully feel the loss it entails.  His brain still mainly functions in an imaginary world, and the pathways of the brain that lead to grief and sadness have not fully developed yet.  

Our 7-year-old’s brain is different.  He is old enough to understand the loss of our cat.  He has developed memories with him and was recently creating routines of having him cuddle with him on the couch.  However, his grief was not as jarring as that of me or my wife.  It was easier for him to move on with his day, all while we are still trying to hold it together several days later.  

It is always important for us as parents to remember that our kids cannot always fully understand our feelings.  This is due to their lack of life experiences.  However, we can help them try to understand by discussing it with them calmly.  Try to understand how they are grieving, and how you may be able to help them. When we view the loss of a loved one in Pediatrics, we interpret it as moderate stress. As long as there is a loving parent or guardian there to help a child through it, their brain gets better at handling more stressful scenarios.

My wife and I may not be getting over the loss of our cat very quickly, but I hope my children can learn how to handle grief for the next unexpected moment that arrives.  With that mindset we can at least find some benefit from such a loss.

Imperfect Dad, MD

Photo by Ella Olsson on

Week 1 Lifestyle Changes

If you saw my post last week, I am going to go through a 6 month challenge of improving my lifestyle through healthier eating, physical activity, sleep, and mindfulness.  This week was the first steps to improve food choices.  It wasn’t perfect, but it was not supposed to be.  I plan for each week to get a little better.

Weight start of the week: 195 lbs

Weight end of the week: 192 lbs

Resting Heart Rate: 80 bpm

Eating habits I changed this week: 

  • My wife and our 7-year-old recently went to our local pumpkin patch and were able to pick a TON of awesome apples.  One of the great things about apples is that when you eat them in the morning, the fiber associated with them allows for the sugars from the fruit to be slowly absorbed in the gut rather than a rapid absorption from something like pancakes and syrup.  This keeps you feeling fuller longer and decreased risk for the midmorning crash.   Apple in the morning with a cup of coffee and I am off to work.  
  • Lunch was easy for me this week.  I think everyone knows how much I love peas.  I ate a bag of frozen peas warmed up (3 servings of vegetables) as either plain, a little ranch (pea salad?), or possibly some soy sauce and honey (simple Asian inspired peas).  I also used some frozen chicken broth to cook Quinoa with garlic and onions.  

Exercise: Increased my daily walking – I have not set up a plan yet to either wake up early or stay up late to get my exercise, so I try to get a walk in over lunch if my schedule allows. 

Lifestyle Tip for the Week: Breakfast does not need to be full of sugar.  Instead of the pastries or sugary cereal your kids may typically do, try changing it up to something a little healthier.  It may be hard at first due to the change in routine, but the more you promote it the better it will get.   

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