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How Do Children Mourn?

QUESTION: I am concerned about my five year old son. Last week our dog was ran over by a truck and killed. My son and his friend were playing nearby and witnessed the whole thing. All of the children were crying except my son who just stood there looking shocked. Later when I brought the subject up to him his reply was, "I didn't even cry." I told him that it was okay to cry and it is normal to feel sad. He has shown no signs of grief over the incident. He told me that he would have liked to see our dog after she died. Is this a normal reaction for a five year old?

ANSWER: Children identify with their pets. Losing the family dog is usually a traumatic event for a child. It can be akin to losing a best friend. But witnessing sudden, unexpected death of a loved family member is truly psychologically overwhelming for anyone, particularly a young child who has less developed psychological defenses.

Your son's psychological numbness is a protective mechanism. The incident was indeed a shocking one for him and he has not yet recovered from the suddenness and magnitude of this loss. Yet, he is observing his own responses ("I didn't even cry"), which shows that he is processing the event. His desire to see his pet in death is a natural part of coping with the reality that she is no longer an active part of his life.

Death poses the dilemma of abstract thinking about the unknown for all of us. Five year olds have not yet mastered abstract thinking, let alone contemplated the mystery that is life. Making the abrupt loss of Brandy into a longer concrete process can help a 5 year old adjust to the death of a loved pet.

Perhaps, in his own way, your son is suggesting a funeral for Brandy. Funerals are rituals to help the living adjust to loss. Especially in your son's case, as there was no warning, only sudden, irreversible change. Wanting to view the dog is an attempt on his part to make it real. Consider a "pet funeral" and use pictures of the dog to help him say "goodbye." Planting flowers or some other marker in honor of your dog's life may help your son find a "place" for the dog he loved, and resolve the separation.

You are doing a great job! Continue to remain open and responsive to his adjustment. The fact that he is talking to you about it means he trusts you with these feelings. Psychological "shock" is a protective state, akin to being "frozen" in the moment. Your son, however is finding words to express himself. This is a sign of thawing. In time he will place her in the past and he will be able to miss her.

Do not be surprised if his feelings melt into tears, triggered by a pet funeral, or some other event in the future. But do not push his grief process. When he is ready, he will cry.

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Gayle Peterson, MSSW, LCSW, PhD is a family therapist specializing in prenatal and family development. She trains professionals in her prenatal counseling model and is the author of An Easier Childbirth, Birthing Normally and her latest book, Making Healthy Families. Her articles on family relationships appear in professional journals and she is an oft-quoted expert in popular magazines such as Woman's Day, Mothering and Parenting. . She also serves on the advisory board for Fit Pregnancy Magazine.

Dr. Gayle Peterson has written family columns for ParentsPlace.com, igrandparents.com, the Bay Area's Parents Press newspaper and the Sierra Foothill's Family Post. She has also hosted a live radio show, "Ask Dr. Gayle" on www.ivillage.com, answering questions on family relationships and parenting. Dr. Peterson has appeared on numerous radio and television interviews including Canadian broadcast as a family and communications expert in the twelve part documentary "Baby's Best Chance". She is former clinical director of the Holistic Health Program at John F. Kennedy University in Northern California and adjunct faculty at the California Institute for Integral Studies in San Francisco. A national public speaker on women's issues and family development, Gayle Peterson practices psychotherapy in Oakland, California and Nevada City, California. She also offers an online certification training program in Prenatal Counseling and Birth Hypnosis. Gayle and is a wife, mother of two adult children and a proud grandmother of three lively boys and one sparkling granddaughter..

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