November 11th, 2022
Ugh. Our ‘best’ cat died last week. My daughter called him the best because he was “just her size” and she could snuggle him and carry him around with ease.
I found his body early in the morning, and I quickly scooped him up, gave him one last hug and thanked him for being him, then rushed to hide the heartbreak from my daughter.
Half way through this process I thought to myself, what am I doing? I don’t want to hide this from her, I want to support her through this heartbreak, like I do everyday with the various upsets she faces; not to mention it was inevitable for her to find out! Of course, this was different, much heavier than everyday upsets, and I had a lot of big feelings I was working through myself.
I gave myself sometime to work through the shock and sadness.
My husband was getting everything ready to bury him, or “return him to the earth” as we say, and I told my daughter he had died.
She had an intense burst of emotion, and then wanted to see him.
She gently stroked him and said goodbye. She asked questions like, “will I still get to hold him”? Tears came with each answer that revealed this was a forever goodbye.
I’m getting to the silver lining I promise… As we finished burying him, I couldn’t help but notice, my four year-old was handling this better than I was. She was fully immersed in the experience, thanking him, loving him and wishing him the best in his next life. I on the other hand fell silent because I knew if I spoke, it would open the flood gates. The thing is, it’s not that I was afraid to cry in front of my husband and daughter, shoving the emotion down was an instinct. Despite many years of my own internal work, allowing myself to cry seems to be one of the last things to come.
When my gut reaction was to hide this heartbreak from my daughter in the beginning, I was moving to protect her from what I was feeling in these final moments.
Here’s the silver lining… my emotions were not accepted as a child, because it was too painful for my amazing caregivers to see me cry. As a result I’ve been conditioned to shove the tears down because they are not safe to express.
My daughter on the other hand cries freely and supported a little, or a lot most days. Broken crayon? two tears. Dead Cat? 200 Tears. My husband and I prioritize supporting her emotion and during the heartbreaking moment of burying her favorite cat, the biggest heartbreak she’s had in a couple years, she seemed to already be more emotionally developed than I am.
In a moment I had been dreading and prepping for for hours, assuming I would need to support her big emotion, she ended up supporting me. She could see that I was sad, walked over to sit on my lap, hugged me and said, “I know mommy, I know”, while she patted me softly on the back. Mimicking the support I give her daily.
A brief moment like this, sure makes all of the moments (hours and hours) I’ve spent supporting her emotion worth it.
The Fruit of Supporting Our Children’s Emotion
In a word, supporting our children’s emotions leads to, adaptation. This process alone covers so many things we want for our children; resiliency, creativity when something doesn’t work, the ability to temper anger and other big emotions, the list goes on and on.
This is how it works… When a child is faced with something they cannot change, like the death of a beloved pet, they might at first remain in their sympathetic nervous system (fight or flight). At this point they have not accepted the reality of what’s happening. For example, when my daughter asked if she would still get to hold him, my warm “no”, is what pushed her to face the reality of the situation.
When there is no other choice but to face the thing they cannot change, this is when the tears come. There’s a switch in the brain from sympathetic to parasympathetic (rest and digest) and the healing and adaptation can begin. You can read a detailed post about supporting emotion here.
In my example of the death of our cat; my daughter was able to be fully present during the burial of her furry friend because she had a safe container, (me) to cry as much as she needed to. When she had moved through the emotion, she was able to move on and conduct the sweetest cat funeral I had ever seen. Meanwhile, I sat silently observing the whole thing because I had yet to find my tears and therefore the ability to move on.
How to Support Emotion
Supporting emotion is simple, but that doesn’t mean it’s easy.
The act of supporting emotion requires a caregiver to be present and willing to stick it out for the long haul. If redirecting, or avoiding your child’s emotion is the norm for you, for most of us it is, this will likely take some time in the beginning.
When I first started supporting my daughter’s emotion, she had some BIG and LONG releases.
It helped me to know my presence and soft heart was all she really needed, I didn’t need to worry about trying to find the right words or talk her out of what she was feeling. When children, or even adults, are in the throws of a meltdown, they don’t really hear what you’re saying anyway. Your energy is better spent making sure your adult brain is calm, your heart is soft and open and that you’re not taking the immature behavior of your child personally.
Practice for all involved will eventually lead to shorter expressions of emotions (for the day to day stuff) and you can rest in the comfort of knowing your child is well on their way to becoming an emotionally intelligent adult.