Mourning Hedgie: helping children with the pain of loss

by Tom Ulrich on November 14, 2012

Flickr/Bryan Chan

Loss looms small and large in all of our lives. It’s part of growing up, part of living. Sometimes what can seem to grown-ups to be small losses can feel much bigger to a child…and maybe that could be a good thing for them in the long run.

Let me explain.

When my son, Owen, was younger, he had a little stuffed animal hedgehog; we named it Hedgie. He was one of Owen’s three favorite bedtime “buddies.”

On a family vacation a couple of years ago, Owen lost Hedgie. Though he was sad at the time, he didn’t make too much fuss, and we all moved on pretty quickly.

A few nights ago, my wife was reading The Velveteen Rabbit to Owen and his little brother Zach, in particular the part where an older toy tells the rabbit that if a child loves him enough, then he might become “real.”

Owen scoffed at the idea in a superior 8-year-old kind of way, but awoke in tears the next morning. “I dreamed about Hedgie all last night. I lost him!”

Thinking back to the story, I asked, “Was Hedgie real?” “Yes, and in my dream I found him. But when I woke up, I remembered that I’d lost him!” He was really upset.

My first thought was, How can I fix this? After all, it couldn’t be that hard to find a new Hedgie.

But then I realized something: Owen was mourning Hedgie.

Clearly the memory of Hedgie had been sitting quietly in the back of his mind all this time. And to Owen, losing Hedgie really had been like losing someone close to him. Getting a new Hedgie wasn’t the right answer, but could we help him process the loss? And in helping him grieve for Hedgie, could we help him learn a little about dealing with grief in more general terms?

My wife and I decided that the answer to both questions was yes, and seeing that Owen was still upset over the last couple of nights, we put some advice we got from Dr. Claire McCarthy into practice.

In helping our son grieve for Hedgie, did my wife and I have an opportunity to teach him a little about dealing with grief in general?

We talked as a family about Hedgie and why he was special—how soft he was, how he was small enough to fit in a pocket, how you could play with him like a puppet. We talked about the sadness Owen was feeling. How loss and the emotions that come with it are normal, and that by remembering Hedgie we could keep him real in our memories.

So far, I think it’s helping. Owen went to bed last night without tears. And this morning, he told me that he still misses Hedgie, but will always have a happy place for him in his heart.

As my wife points out, each of us copes with things in our own way. Zach, for instance, is like her: they wear their emotions on their sleeves. Owen is more like me: we tend to work things out quietly on the inside.

Still, I think there are some common threads in how we can help each other process loss. The family conversation we had about Hedgie is probably similar to the one we’d have if we were to lose a loved one. The scale is obviously different, but the ideas—talking about the person, remembering what was special about them and honoring those memories—hold true.

We’re very lucky that Owen hasn’t yet had to face a truly big loss. All of his grandparents are alive, well and very much part of his and his brother’s lives. Only time will tell whether the experience of mourning Hedgie will in some way help Owen down the road.

But I think we’ve done the best we could to turn a moment of small sadness into a larger teachable one about the loss of something beloved.

Thank you for giving us that moment, Hedgie. And good-bye.

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