I have always been an animal person. If I am being honest, I am just a few pets away from being the stereotypical “cat lady” of the neighborhood. In fact, there is a high likelihood that the 90-year-old version of myself will live in a house with at least a dozen stray cats and five rescue dogs.
Animals find me everywhere (okay, maybe I find them). During my high school years, I somehow adopted more than one neighborhood feral cat. I once left a beach party in the Dominican Republic to hang out with the local beach dog. A feral kitten climbed into the wheel well of my tire eight years ago and she still lives with us. I went to the pet store for cat food one day and witnessed a pair of juvenile cats get separated as one was purchased, so I adopted the other one. I now have three dogs — all rescues and all a bit quirky.
Why do I have so many pets? It’s simple, really: They bring me and my family lots of joy. They teach us invaluable life lessons, things like love, patience, responsibility and care giving. But they also teach us about something else — grief and loss.
When our senior dog, Sandy, made it clear to us that her time was coming to an end, we had a long conversation with our two boys, ages five and eight at the time. The plan was that our veterinarian would come to our house and euthanize Sandy in front of the fireplace, her favorite spot. We asked our boys if they wanted to be there and arranged for child care in case they didn’t. Surprisingly, they both wanted to stay and be a part of it, and so they were.
After spending the afternoon loving Sandy, giving her all her favorite things and carrying her to her favorite places in our home, the four of us sat on the living room floor, in front of the fireplace, in a circle around Sandy while the vet and his vet tech helped us to say goodbye. She died in our arms, and it was the most beautiful, amazing and heart breaking thing we have ever experienced as a family. Saying goodbye to Sandy after 12 years was nearly impossible, but watching our children say goodbye to a pet they had known their whole lives crushed us.
Death is death.
Loss is loss.
Grief is grief.
For many people, losing a pet is exactly the same as losing a human — and for children, the loss of a pet is often their first experience with death. It was for my boys. It was their first family member to die, and I so badly wanted to shield them from the grief, but I knew that I just couldn’t. Death is as much a part of life as birth, and one of my jobs as a parent is to help my children understand and process all the things that surround it. Having worked in the bereavement field for many years and having experienced pet loss twice as a parent, once as a sudden loss and once as a planned loss, I have developed some important insights into how best to handle pet loss with children.
1. Remember that every child is unique.
A family friend recently lost their dog and I asked my two children for some advice for their friends. One child said “Talk about him. A lot. It helped me to remember stories and look at pictures.” The other said, “Think about happy things — vacations, movies, stuff like that. Don’t think about the dog. I didn’t like when I thought about her.” Their approaches could not be more different and both approaches are okay. Remember that no two children are the same. Siblings will likely grieve very differently. It is normal. How one child handled one pet loss may be different than how they handle another pet loss later in life. Remember that there is no cookie-cutter approach to handling loss with children. Let their individuality guide you, and resist the urge to compare.
2. Be honest.
If you know a pet’s health is failing, be honest with your children. Children are smarter than we often give them credit for, and they probably have already noticed the same signs you are noticing as your pet’s health fails. There is a tendency, especially with smaller pets like fish, birds and hamsters, to lie to children and quietly replace the dead pet with a new pet. I always advise against taking this approach. For starters, your children will, at some point, find out that you lied to them. And while we lie about things like the Tooth Fairy and Santa Claus, lying about death is a different type of lie, and can cause confusion in children later in life. Death and grief are painful, but your children will encounter them in their lives. Help them face death, grief, and loss head on. Look at it as an opportunity for growth rather than an impossible challenge.
3. Invite them to be part of the process.
If euthanasia is being considered, let children know, in developmentally appropriate terms, what is happening in the pet’s body and what the plans are for saying goodbye. Let your children know they can ask you and the vet questions (check with your vet ahead of time). Invite them to be part of the process and explain what their involvement could look like. Let them know they can back out of the process at any time and have an escape plan ready for them. While having them be part of the process may be scary for us as parents, it can actually provide children with the concrete information they need to more effectively handle the loss. It also sends them a message that they are important, and their input is valued.
4. Have grief books available for them.
There are countless books available for children of all developmental stages about pet loss. Purchase books, borrow some from a friend, or take home a few from your local library. Leave the books in a designated spot in your home and let your children know you are always available to read the books with them — or they can take one and read it on their own. This approach gives children control and power, but also sends the message that you are there to support them. Take some time to read the books first to make sure they will be appropriate for your children. A list of books can be found here.
5. Don’t be quick to put everything away.
We had to put Sandy’s dog bed away immediately. It was too painful for all of us to look at. But, we kept her collar out. In fact, it’s still out. Her ashes and collar sit on our mantle, a reminder that she was real, our love for her was big, and that she was an important part of our family. We found a way to keep memories of her around without breaking our hearts into a million pieces. It might be helpful for your children to leave at least a few things out to remind them of your pet. Talk with your children and get their input.
6. Consider some sort of memorial service.
This tip may sound a bit hokey and cheesy. This service is not for your pet, but for your children. Formal services help us to acknowledge and share our grief. Children often need this time to openly and formally express and share their own grief and also observe the grief of others. Children can draw pictures, write out cards, put together a memory board or picture book and say a few words. Invite them to participate, but let them know it is not necessary. Let them sort of “drive the bus.” One child may want to participate while another may not want to be involved. Both approaches are acceptable.
7. Have some quiet family time.
There is a tendency to distract and keep everyone busy following a pet loss. While this is a good approach to a point, it may send the message that grieving about your pet is not normal and not allowed. It might send the message that grieving is abnormal and shameful. Some quiet time as a family should be scheduled to allow for some natural grief reactions to occur — things like movies at home, board games, or quiet time for reading may be quite healing for everyone. Sometimes, especially when we have active children, our lives move 100 miles an hour and time for things like grieving just slips away. Create some space and time for your children to feel and express their emotions. Bedtime also seems to be a good time for families to share some quiet moments together.
8. Remember that “mad” and “sad” do not equal “bad.”
Anger and sadness are two of the most common emotions felt by children following a loss. For many children, these feelings are complex, confusing and overwhelming. As children are concrete thinkers and death is such an abstract concept, expressing their feelings with words can often be a challenge. Thus, it is common for some children to express their grief through actions, and sometimes these actions can be labeled as “bad” behaviors. You may see increased acting out behaviors like siblings fighting and bickering more, teasing, negative attitudes and grumpiness. You may also see regressive behaviors such as bed wetting, thumb sucking, asking for help with things like tying shoes — things they were able to do for themselves previously. These reactions are often normal, and are temporary. As children have opportunities to express and process their feelings, their behaviors will often return to normal. If they persist, a therapist can help provide solutions that work for your child.
9. Communicate with other adults.
Depending on your child’s age, they may have other important adults in their lives. Send a quick email to those important people (i.e. their teachers and their coaches) to let them know that your child just experienced a pet loss — not as an excuse for behaviors, but as a heads up for the child seeming “off,” and also as an extra set of eyes. Let your children know that you are doing so. When Sandy died, my boys were in second grade and preschool. Both boys’ teachers were great, pulled the boys aside privately to express their condolences, and gave them an opportunity to talk about it with classmates. One did. The other didn’t. The younger one did draw about it later on — sometimes during school, sometimes at home. The teacher appreciated knowing about the loss as it helped guide her discussions with him about his drawings and writings.
10. Be real.
The trickiest part of all of this is that you, as a parent, are also grieving. Contrary to what many people think, it’s okay to let your children see you cry. You do not need to “be strong.” Rather, be real and let go of some of the pressure you put on yourself. When Sandy’s remains were ready to be picked up, we were not prepared for how intense our emotional reactions would be. When we got everything home and took the urn out of the bag, I broke. Sobbed. Then, we all did. You know what? We were okay. We supported each other and my children were not scarred by seeing me cry. Rather, they had the opportunity to see me safely express my raw feelings and put myself back together. Give your children a good model for grief.
For most people, many of the suggestions provided feel strange and uncomfortable. I get it. It is quite likely that my suggestions are completely opposite of what your gut may be telling you to do. So many of us have been conditioned to not openly grieve, to not talk about our feelings. Think about how we, as a society, view death and grief. We avoid them, at all costs. We provide three days off for bereavement and then send the message to those that have lost someone that they should hurry up and move on, get over it, find closure. I firmly believe these messages are wrong.
There is no such thing as closure. We never heal after a loss. There is still a hole in our heart and sometimes something triggers us, sending us right back into the dark depths of grief. That is normal grief. As parents, we can choose to send our children a different message about grief than the message that many of us were given. We can teach them that feeling pain and grief after a loss is normal, acceptable and healthy. We can provide opportunities for our children to express their feelings and can reassure them that grief, although at times messy, uncomfortable and frightening, is normal.