Okay, here’s the question of the day for you all:
How does a parent help a child with autism understand, process & grieve for the loss of a family member?
About a week ago our beloved cat (who has a real name, but who has been affectionately referred to as “Kitty” for as long as Alex has been talking) died after spending her entire 18 years with our family. She was an old cat. We talked about that. She was relatively healthy and active up until a few weeks ago. We saw the decline coming. First she lost her sight, then her hearing, then her balance. It all happened so quickly that before I knew it, poor Kitty could barely stand up. The night she died she could barely hold her head up. It was just her time.
Alex was already asleep when the decision was made to take Kitty to the hospital. Hannah was awake, having just gotten home from her Tuesday “girls night out” with Mom, and so we sat together and said goodbye to Kitty. We told her she was a good cat, that we loved her. We remembered good times with Kitty and petted her and wrapped her in a blanket. Then we kissed our cat and Daddy graciously put her in the carrier to take her away.
I cried, Hannah cried. Although I have worked with children and families in various counseling capacities over the last 20 years, I found myself at a loss for words. It didn’t seem to matter that I’d run groups on grief and loss for kids, or that I’ve worked with families affected by cancer. She was my cat, too. And I was sad.
Holding my little girl on my lap, wanting to comfort her and somehow explain this whole mysterious process in hopeful, better-than-this-immediate-pain kind of words, I found myself reaching for the fairytale explanations.
“Kitty will go to kitty heaven now. And she’ll get to… chase butterflies… and drink all the milk she wants… and–”
“No, Mommy!” Hannah cut me off midsentence. “Kitty is thinking about me and missing me and crying kitty tears!”
And with that, she clenched her little fist and buried her face in my shoulder and sobbed. She was right. The whole thing sucked. Death sucks.
The next day Hannah told me she wants to talk with her kindergarten teacher and her friends at school about her kitty. She told me that she still feels sad, but she is also looking forward to maybe one day having a new cat or possibly a bunny. The typical ups and downs of the circular, squiggly grief process of a five year old. I felt grateful she could articulate her feelings.
After Hannah bounced off to eat her breakfast, I stood watching Alex in the kitchen. He was engrossed in his usual routine, munching gluten-free french toast and searching youtube videos for marble runs. Again, I was at a loss. I wanted to tell him about Kitty and somehow start to help him “process” all the stuff that goes along with saying goodbye to a family pet. But of course Alex was just in a different place and I couldn’t– or didn’t know how to– relate right then. I was the outwardly emotional one, he was the puzzle to me.
Alex knows Kitty is gone. He recognizes we are sad. He is aware of the space that is left in our home because one of its occupants is no longer wandering around. I guess I could leave it at that and stand ready for questions, provide opportunities for talking about pets and families and emotions. Trouble is, I have this nagging feeling that I’ve got to move on this and find some way to connect with Alex in a more immediate way about Kitty’s death. One day, it won’t be a pet for whom we grieve. Although I realize no one can ever be fully prepared for the death of a loved one, I want to lay some groundwork now while I am able to understand and process my own grief so that my kids and I might have something to grab and hold onto down the road.
Anyone know of any good books, teaching tools, online resources which are truly autism-friendly for talking to kids about death, grief and loss?