It’s a day that we know will come in one form or another. That day, you may feel a pit in your stomach when you arrive home from work and find your daughter’s rabbit stiff and unmoving. Maybe you’ll glance at the fish tank and notice your son’s goldfish floating at the top of the tank. Your family pet may die in an accident, or you may meet the day when the only way to end your pet’s suffering is to ask the veterinarian to end his life.
As a parent, you ache for the pet you lose, but also for your grieving children. You may feel tempted to take great measures to spare them the anguish of losing their pet. Even if you don’t resort to the now-iconic adage of claiming the pet “went to live on a farm,” you might feel tempted to “fix it” by asking your children to choose a new pet before the sun even sets on the former pet’s grave. Some parents have even tried to deny the loss entirely. One mother became so distraught when she awoke one morning to find her daughter’s hamster dead, she hastily buried the hamster’s remains in the trash and bolted to the nearest pet store with hopes of purchasing an identical hamster before her daughter woke up. The desire to protect children from emotional pain is understandable. But are there other ways to support children through grieving for a companion? Just as pets help children understand living, the loss of a pet may be a child’s first experience with death and dying. Though it’s inherently unpleasant, healthy grieving is a life skill. The way you guide your children through grieving for a humble goldfish will influence how they cope with grief later in life.
In the first 48 hours… First, acknowledge your own emotions. Although it is vital that you remain calm, it is okay to show your feelings, even if you cry. If you want your children to recognize the intrinsic value of animals, don’t allow anyone to dismiss your loved one as “just an animal.” This will also reassure your children that their feelings of loss are justified. Seeing the lifeless body of a pet who was moving just days or hours before can come as a shock, especially if the body is still surrounded by food, toys, and the things it enjoyed in life. If possible, put the body in a blanket-lined box. Inform your children of the death in a separate room from the body. Ask your children if they would like to see it. If they don’t, that’s okay.
As a family, you may decide to hold a memorial service or “celebration of life” for the pet. If your family holds religious beliefs that include animals, you might incorporate those into your service. Avoid referring to the pet as “asleep.” The euphemism doesn’t spare older children, and can be confusing to young children. They may feel reluctant to fall asleep themselves, or believe that in time their pet will wake up.
The week of… Encourage your children to write a letter to their pet, or if they want to, build a memorial.
Reassure your children that the pain of loss subsides with time and will be replaced by happy memories.
Watch very young children for signs of guilt and worry. Some children may fear that the death was their fault or begin to fear that you will die. Reassure them that death is a part of life. Also, let your children know that you will be around for a long, long time!
Resist the urge to immediately acquire another pet. Doing so inadvertently sends a message that animals, and for that matter, relationships, are replaceable. Equally problematic is the perception that grief is bad and something a person should fight to distract oneself from.
Allow your children to choose a few of the pet’s belongings to keep in the family as mementos, such as the collar and a few favorite toys. Other items should be thrown away or donated. If young children continue to see pet food in the cabinet, this could delay their acceptance of the pet’s passing.
The weeks following… Allow your children the freedom to grieve, but encourage them to continue hobbies, even when they don’t feel like it.
If your children wish, allow them to talk about any dreams they might have about the pet. Also, be aware of “grief hallucinations”. Some studies show that over 50% of people think they can see or hear a deceased loved one immediately after the loss. A child may tell you he “saw” his cat rounding the corner. Simply put, our brains are so accustomed to seeing familiar people and objects on a regular basis, that our perception can take some time to catch up. This phenomenon is temporary.
As your grief within the family eases over time, consider the possibility of adopting another pet. There are millions of animals in shelters whose very lives depend on adoption. Adopting an animal could very well be one of the best ways to honor your pet’s memory.
When you think about it…the death of a pet can teach valuable lessons about the end of life.