I walked downstairs to grab the laundry out of the dryer. As I was passing Penny’s cage, I was reminded to feed her breakfast. As I looked at the cage a little closer, I noticed something strange. Penny was sleeping on her side. I had never seen her do that before. “Oh no, I hope she’s not sick” I thought. As I approached the cage closer, I made the startling discovery that Penny was not asleep at all. She was dead. I quickly called for my husband. By the time he came down the stairs I was in tears. I was shocked. I was heartbroken. How could this have happened? How were we going to tell our daughter? We were frantically trying to figure out what to do. As we made plans for our beloved little Penny, a sickening realization came over me. We were going to have to tell our daughter, and she would be devastated.
Penny was our first family pet. Our daughter wanted a pet bunny for a long time. Her best friend gave Penny to her for her 6th birthday. It was actually the first time I had ever seen my daughter cry with tears of joy. To this day, it is still one of my favourite memories.
That day a special bond was formed between girl and bunny. Penny was the bunny who thought she was a baby. She was cuddly and affectionate and LOVED Nyah. We took her on vacations, to grandparents houses, even to school. No matter what Nyah was doing, Penny was not far behind. I loved watching the special connection between the two of them. Penny was the perfect pet. And now Penny was gone. I knew my daughter would be heartbroken.
Nyah had been fortunate in her 9 years of life. She had not yet experienced a great loss. The gravity of her first experience with grief and loss was weighing on me. I knew that this was going to be the most painful experience of her little life thus far. To make matters worse the day that Penny passed away was Nyah’s 9th birthday. It was also a week before Easter. There were bunny themed things everywhere! Three O’clock was approaching. We had to pick her up from school soon. My husband and I started to make a game plan of how we were going to break the news to her. “Let’s tell her, and then take her out to a fun restaurant for dinner and let her pick out a toy from the toy store to get her mind off of it” my husband suggested. “Yes” I initially agreed. “This was a good plan” But as I started to think it through, I felt uneasy. I recognized that this conversation would be a pivotal moment in her life. This was her very first experience coping with tragedy and great loss. The way we taught her to handle this situation would set the stage for the rest of her life. This moment was big. It was bigger than just the loss of a pet.
I began to think about my own coping skills. I thought about the way that I handle hardship and pain. I thought about the way I seek comfort in cupcakes and donuts. I thought about the way I often choose to shut down and not acknowledge my painful feelings and I wondered where that all started. I tried to think back. Why did I choose to handle my pain this way? Why was I so afraid to feel hurt and discomfort? And you know what? I couldn’t figure it out for myself. I couldn’t even remember when I started coping that way, but I knew that I wanted to teach my daughter a different way. I resolved to be alert. I knew I needed to pay attention here. This was a life lesson and I needed to pull it together and show up. I couldn’t cower and hide from the difficulty of seeing her in pain. She needed us in this moment and we needed to come through for her.
We weren’t going to distract her with fancy dinners and trips to the toy store. We weren’t going to try to shield her from the pain. Instead, we were going to take her little hand and walk with her straight into the darkness. We were going to sit still and listen, and cry, and feel all the hard feelings together. We were going to be angry and feel that it was unfair. We were going to ask why and how. We were going to acknowledge the deep sorrow that this loss brought. We weren’t going to distract or minimize. We weren’t going to move on, not speaking about it, pretending it didn’t happen. We were going to remind her that she is brave and strong and that she can do hard things. We were going to show her that pain is not something to run from. We were going to teach her that pain can seem big and scary, but it would not break her. And in the end, she would know that she had permission to grieve. In this family sorrow was not a solo journey. What hurts one hurts us all. We come together. We lift. We pray. And then we overcome.
When we told her the news it was just as bad as I thought it would be; the pain in her face, the sobbing, the weakness and exhaustion that grief brings. It all came rushing over our family. It hung around like a thick fog. We comforted her through many tears, so many sleepless nights and so many triggers. It seemed like everywhere we looked we saw bunnies, and each sighting cut her deep. But, we stuck to our plan. We came together. We paid attention. We encouraged her not cower or hide from her pain. We embraced the pain and worked through it day by day, and piece by piece. We talked it through and processed it all- for months. We left nothing on the table and were able to watch our daughter slowly move forward.
As parents it’s easy to be overwhelmed with the day to day tasks and to miss the emotional stuff. It’s easy because the emotional stuff creeps up quietly. It doesn’t call out to you in the obvious way as a hamper overflowing with dirty laundry or a sink full of dirty dishes does. It likes to hide and tries to sneak by unnoticed. The emotional stuff emerges in subtleties, and if you sweep it under the carpet, it’ll gladly stay there for years. The problem is that the emotional stuff doesn’t stay small under that carpet forever. With each overlooked emotional situation it grows. It gets bigger and darker until one day, usually sometime during adulthood, it devours that carpet. And then it emerges as a monster that is not so easily defeated. Our job as parents is to be the keeper of the carpet. We don’t let things creep under there. We pay attention. We stand guard. We are strong enough to face hard things head on, and deal with them as they come. We don’t let the important stuff get under that carpet. Everything stays in the light. Caring for the emotional well being of our children is one of the most important things we can do for them.
“ Pain is not a hot potato to be passed around. Pain is a travelling professor. And it just goes and knocks on everyone’s door, and the smartest people I know are the people that say come in, and don’t leave until you’ve taught me what I need to know.”
There is nothing more satisfying as a parent than seeing your child overcome something that is hard. How do you handle hard stuff with your kids? I would love to know in the comments below!
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