Grieving; What to do When They Don’t Understand


In the past 2 years, my girl has lost 2 close family members.  After a lengthy illness, my mother, who had lived with us for 2 years, passed away.  The time leading up to her death was particularly hard, and I had no idea how to talk to Heather about this, since she doesn’t have a cognitive awareness of death or illness, other than when you’re sick, you visit the Dr. My mother chose Hospice, in our home, and let’s just say it was anything but peaceful.  A few days in, Heather began demanding:: “Kristen, hospital, now”. She knew that my mom was sick, and to her, it appeared that we were not taking the appropriate steps to care for her properly. Despite my desire for Heather and my mom to spend time together before there would be no more time, I sent Heather away for her waking hours.  She went on outings and visited friends and family.  She came home to say goodnight and left first thing in the morning.  I couldn’t bear the thought that she might think we were allowing my mom to suffer.


One of their last “goodnights”.

My mom passed, the family dispersed from my house, and I waited for Heather to ask where she was.  She never did.  I was floored, since perseveration is one of Heather’s strongest traits, and I had been expecting an onslaught of “Where Kristen?”  I showed her pictures, she refused to look. I gave her my mom’s reading glasses because she loves wearing glasses, but she refused to take them. I showed her videos, she got mad at me.  She never said anything else. Fast forward 3 months, she woke up one morning and randomly I hear, “where Kristen?”.  It had taken her months to ask the question, perhaps months to even be able to talk about it.  “Kristen was sick. She died. Dead. She’s in heaven now.” Her response?  “Ok”.  A few months later, we were watching TV, and there was a Dr. on the show. We ended up having a WHOLE conversation about my mom and the hospital, and Dr’s, and we sang the songs my mom used to sing to her and we looked at pictures and videos. It finally felt like she understood, and was ok.

This past month, we had to put down our family dog. The dog who’d been in our family for 10 years, and was very much a part of our household. There were tears from all our family members, and we tried to tell Heather, now that she might have some understanding of death, that the dog wasn’t coming back because he was sick.  She wouldn’t pet him, and wouldn’t say goodbye. I assumed that Heather would respond similarly to when my mom died, and that in a few months, we’d have a chat about the dog.  But, heartbroken from the vet, I walked into the house, and she immediately asked, “Where Chico?”. WHAT? Now? Now she wants to talk about him? We told her the same thing- Chico is dead, he was too sick, and he won’t be back. She loves to look at pictures of him, and even 4 weeks later, she asks about him daily.


Heather and Chico

The point is, no matter how we prepare, or don’t prepare, we don’t know how someone will respond to death. We don’t know how they will grieve, or not grieve.  All we can do is what we do every day: try as best we can to help them understand and deal with the circumstances.  Support them in whatever ways they choose to grieve, and offer coping skills and ideas that may help.  We can’t guess how someone will feel, what they’ll need, or determine how they should grieve. On top of that, since each circumstance is different, we can’t even determine how they will grieve each time they need to. We can only support after the fact.

Below you’ll find some resources that may help you when you need them.

Losing a Pet in an Autistic Household

2 thoughts on “Grieving; What to do When They Don’t Understand

  1. Karen E. Belenger

    Thank you for sharing your story. I am a clinician who works with children with various abilities and dealing with grief is individualized. No one responds the same way or in a way that we expect. You did a fabulous job supporting your child and your openness will help others. Nice job mom


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