Teaching Kids the Important Work of Grieving Well

Written by Rebecca Ninke

When I was a little kid, I was a stray dog magnet. My parents were forever calling the radio station to broadcast another lost dog that came trotting home behind me. Only once did it turn out that the dog was actually in his own yard when I “found” him. As an adult, the tradition has continued more formally: my family volunteers as a foster home for a dog rescue group. It’s a great gig with a new dog passing through every month or two; usually it’s a happy ending, but occasionally a hard decision has to be made when a dog is sick and needs to be put down. My kids always have the option of coming along to the vet to be with the dog at the end; usually they do. Then we all have a good cry together. The dog tags are added to the big memorial keyring and the collar goes on a stuffed animal with similar characteristics. No matter how many times we lose a dog, it never gets any easier.

I’ve seen lots of different types of grief over the years as a pastor and if I had one piece of faithful advice, it’s to teach kids to face grief head on. You can’t avoid it in life, so best to just acknowledge it and plow through the best you can with family, friends, and faith supporting you. Grieving a handful of dogs over a decade, I believe, has helped equip my kids to recognize the everyday griefs of all the things they will say goodbye to in a lifetime: griefs like friends moving away and normal childhood transitions, as well as the larger griefs that life will place in their paths—like the death of loved ones.

Good grief acknowledges that the greater the love, the harder the loss. The Memory Box: A Book About Grief, by Joanna Rowland, is a beautifully written and illustrated book that helps kids understand the emotions that come with grief even as life continues on. With ideas on how to create a memory box, it adds the important aspect of ritual with the comfort that love remains, even when the beloved is gone.

I read The Memory Box with my daughter and it made us both teary. The next day, she found out a classmate’s mother had lost her battle with cancer and wondered if we could give her a copy.

This lovely book is an important resource to have on hand for distribution at church too. What a ministry to have crafty folks or woodworkers in the congregation preparing a few boxes to have on hand to accompany it. Parents will find it helpful to have a copy at home for kids dealing with the loss of grandparents, people, or pets who have died—or as a book to spur conversation about what others might be going through.

The Memory Box helps kids understand grief as a natural part of life—that where there is loss, there has been love—and that it’s worth the pain every time.

Rebecca Ninke is a writer and pastor who has served churches in Arizona and Wisconsin. Her first book, co-written with her ten-year-old daughter, will be available in February 2019 from Beaming Books. Her family volunteers with Above & Beyond English Setter Rescue: https://esrescue.org/our-dogs.