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March 08, 2011

When Losing the Family Pet Leads to Bigger Questions

BLOG-Pet-Loss Recent studies have shown that the bond between humans and dogs is more than just an emotional connection – it’s an evolved physical reaction. Ron, the boys, and I have known this for years. Sydney and Blake are more than just our dogs – they are members of the family. It's not rare for me to find Ron asleep with Blake on his lap or Adam watching television while hugging Sydney like a pillow.

When a beloved pet passes away, we parents are faced with a tough conversation that can snowball into bigger questions about a child's own mortality and fears of abandonment. For younger children, this can even be their very first introduction to the concept of loss. With Blake at 12-years-old now, we have started conversations with Adam about death, which have lead to bigger questions about what happens when we die – “What would you see, Mom?  A blank sky? Would it be dark?”  Since I know many parents dread this inevitable topic, I asked Care.com Contributor and Psychotherapist Dr. Robi Ludwig to guide us through the heart-wrenching discussion:

Tell the Truth

To help kids cope with the loss of a pet, the first step is simply to be honest. Stay away from half-truths and euphemistic descriptions about death. Instead, gently explain that the family pet has died. At this point, take care to gauge your child’s reaction – does he or she understand?

A child’s understanding about death will vary based on age. According to the Association for Pet Loss and Bereavement, kids between the ages of 7 and 9 tend to have the most questions about death. If your child asks, “what happens after we die?” take this opportunity to explain your own beliefs.  It’s also okay to admit that you’re not entirely sure.

Be aware that this loss can trigger your child to fear that you or other people he or she loves will die. Be patient and address these fears as they come up. For example, if your child asks if you’re going to die and leave them too, reply with your own version of: “Most people die when they are very old, and I don’t plan to leave this earth for a very long time.”

Honor Your Child’s Feelings

The second step is to help your child to express grief. Encourage your children to make drawings or write stories about their pet. It’s also very helpful to have them recall happy memories, which is an important step in the grieving process. Kids may need to cry and express their feelings of loss, which is to be expected. They might also struggle with other complex emotions like anger, denial and guilt. Encourage your child to talk with you about his or her feelings. This will allow you to explain that this experience is normal and a natural part of the grieving process. Help your child to move through the depression stage and eventually come to a place of acceptance.

Find a Way to Memorialize this Passing

Having a burial, memorial or similar type of ceremony helps to reinforce the importance of the pet’s life while also marking its death. This can be done in many different ways. Kids should be allowed to participate in whatever way feels right for them: marking the gravesite, making a garden stone with the pet’s name on it, planting a tree in remembrance of the pet, or designing a collage of the pet’s photos and placing it in a frame.

Managing loss and death is ironically one of the most difficult aspects of life.  But if handled correctly, the loss of a family pet can be a valuable opportunity to teach an important, yet tough life lesson about how to deal with loss in an open and healthy way.

Check out the articles below for additional pet care resources, and let me know: Have you talked to your kids about death? What did you say? How did they deal with the loss of a pet or loved one?

Help Your Senior Pet Live His Golden Years in Style

Preparing for a Pet Care Emergency

All about Pet Health Insurance: Where to find it, why and how

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Comments

Beth

My mother-in-law and grandfather-in-law passed away in between the passing of two of our ferrets. The last death was a ferret that was SO incredibly close to our 4-year-old - he was her pet and her best friend. He would tolerate absolutely anything she did (sometimes more than I would have preferred); she could do no wrong by him. The deaths being so close together made it HARD - but we told her straight, gave many, many hugs, and made sure to answer all her questions directly and truly as they came up, no matter how awkward or bizarre the question. It seemed to really help, and while it led to some very odd conversations with strangers and teachers, she seemed to adjust remarkably well to so much loss at such a young age.

I will say that her pretend turned really morbid. We didn't want to discourage her in any way so we didn't punish or scold, but I even now have to keep reminding her that her pretend friend does not have to have a tragic backstory, a life-threatening wound, or be fighting for his or her life.

We have also had to remind her that moody behavior frequently seems like mean behavior to a casual onlooker, so to be really careful with that, and to not try too hard to get to know people just because they're moody too. Since she keeps looking at people she feels she has stuff in common with, she sometimes is fretting over not connecting with one or two harder-to-reach kids instead of playing with the friends she has. We're encouraging her to play and have fun with the people who like her for who she is, and it seems to be pulling her out of it and helping her settle back in to the happier sides of life.

Laura

If your kids want to know what happens after they die and you are not familiar with the Bible and are not a believer in Jesus Christ, then I would suggest reading Heaven is For Real by Todd Burpo. A child as young as 8 or 9 could read this book easily. If you are a believer, there should be no questions about what happens when we die or any fear of death. The book will just further encourage you and bring great joy.

Nikki

If you believe in God, the explanation is easy - all dogs go to Heaven. My daughter was very satisfied with this answer.

Tara

3/4/11 We just had to deal with loosing our Bridger Boy, our Golden Retriever. He was 10yrs and stop eating. I thought it was an abcess tooth, which was not the case. A huge cancerous tumor in his vascular tissue by his liver. He was our boy and my daughters therapy dog. Which it turned out he was in fact my therapy dog. During my 2yr medical battle he didn't leave my side. This was heart wrenching and still is. We have ordered a urn w/etching of his beautiful face and did a collage. There is no right way to deal w/this loss, we have been dealing w/it in our own way. My daughter w/ her music, but we know he didn't suffer, at the vets, we spent and hour brushing him, loving on him he was surrounded w/love we even played music to him, that my daughter recorded for him. We said our goodbyes before he went to surgery. We know he died feeling loved and that gave us some closure. now he is playing w/ the other dogs in a beautiful feild of grass and someday we will meet again and walk through the gates of heaven together. So to us he is just playing w/ other doggy's just waiting to see us again. But he feels no pain and is very happy.

K Jordan

We read our 6 year old "Dog Heaven" from Cynthia Rylant when we broke the news. We stressed things from the book that we thought would resonate with our son, like the dogs having kids to play with, and that the dogs run and play until they are worn out. Our dog was having difficulty walking at the end of his days, so hearing this was soothing news to my son. This particular book has been passed along from family to family and our son is the fifth child to receive it. Each family writes a sweet note to the new recipient. This made it evident to our son that other people have gone through the situation he was now facing. We of course answered all of his immediate questions and told him we would be available to answer questions in the future and share fun memories about our dog whenever our son wanted.
There is also "Cat Heaven" available and I should point out that the book is faith-based, being about Heaven and all, so may not coincide with your own beliefs. It did give my son a great deal of comfort.

The Pet Care Guy

When your pets get older, and as you see that they may pass within a few months, or if the pet becomes ill, take this opportunity to speak with your children before the fact. Ease them into it, letting them know about life and death, and how their beloved pet will not be around forever. Teach them to really cherish the time they have with their pets as they age, or during their illness. This should help them deal with the actual passing of their pet a little better.

Julie

My 7-year old niece recently lost two of her pets in the same day. Her dogs were hit by a car at the same time. Naturally, she was devastated. We had a memorial service for the dogs and she laid flowers on the grave. It was important for her to take part in the service and I think it helped her feel less helpless about the situation and gave her a bit of closure. It's so important to honor the memory of our pets.

CentralCoastVet

I can't hardly type this through all the tears but there have been a few wonderful four legged friends in my life that I sure hope I see again..

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