Pet Loss - a Guide for Parents
Death is never easy
When a death is experienced in our immediate family, as parents, we have the difficult task of not only grieving for our own loss but also explaining the death to our children and helping them deal with their grief. When a pet dies, a friend and a family member is lost.
Pets offer unconditional love and companionship in an increasingly hectic and lonely society. Holding or stroking a cat or dog is a comfort to many children. When such a non-judgmental companion and playmate is lost, it is no wonder that we feel so sad when our animals die.
Grief is normal
It is perfectly normal to grieve when a person you love dies. When your pet dies, if you have been particularly close to it, you may experience all the same symptoms as when you have lost a person. In some cases, a more intense reaction is present after losing a pet than after the loss of a spouse or a parent. This is normal and may be the result of a closer, unconditional relationship with the animal or it may be that unresolved grief issues from the past have arisen.
How do you tell a child that their pet is dead?
Children appreciate being spoken to honestly. They would rather know that their pet has died and is never coming back than "Fido has gone to a better home".
If you have religious beliefs, tell the child what you believe happens to the animal.
Choose words carefully with children. Don't talk about the pet being "put to sleep”, otherwise they might wonder what will happen when they are put to sleep at night! “Helping Spot to die because he is very ill” might be a better alternative.
Explanations about death should, ideally, have begun a long time before the animal has actually died. Death, like sex, is an issue that should be brought into everyday conversation with children. Next time you pass a cemetery or crematorium take the opportunity to talk about death.
Ask your vet to help explain to your son or daughter what has happened to your pet, using age appropriate language.
Age and grief
Each member of a family experiences pet loss in a unique way. We can look at a few common reactions to a pet's death:
Babies: may sense an increase in stress within the family although they may not be aware why;
Pre-schoolers: begin to understand death but not its finality so questions such as “Yes, mum I know Spot’s dead but when is he coming back for dinner?” are common;
School age children: may ask lots of questions about death and their pet’s body;
Adolescents: may vary from day to day, one day they don’t care about the animal, the next they are devastated. Often they lose their only source of comfort at a difficult time in their lives;
Young adults: may feel guilt at not seeing their pet often enough after leaving home;
Parents: may not have enough time or energy to grieve since they are busy dealing with the grief of the rest of the family.
What is grief?
The grief response is varied and may include such feelings as denial, anger, guilt, depression and acceptance or a mixture of all of these, in no particular order.
"If only I hadn't left the gate open, Spot wouldn't have got run over. It's all my fault," is a common statement by people feeling guilty over the accidental death or loss of a pet.
Euthanasia can also bring up feelings of guilt. While the decision to end a terminally ill pet's life is made in the animal's interests, it often leaves us feeling guilty. After all, how often do we have to make the decision to end another life?
Alternatively you may feel relief, that you no longer have to care for a sick animal or pay vet bills or take the dog for a walk. You may then feel guilty about feeling relieved!
Nothing is certain about grieving, only that it may be a time of true chaos and it may take as long to “recover” from the loss of a pet as it does losing any other loved companion.
Talk about your pet
One of the most important things you can do for your child at this sad time is let them talk. Unfortunately, for many of us, when a pet dies, there is often nobody to talk to, no one who can understand how the grieving person feels, after all it was “only an animal”.
Do not try to take the child's feelings away. Saying "Don't feel guilty. Anyone could have left the gate open" does not help. They are feeling guilty. It might be more helpful to say "I understand that you feel guilty but I want you to know that we do not blame you in any way."
The death of a pet is often the first time that a child will have confronted death and this experience may influence the child's subsequent reactions to death and the grieving process. Children who are told not to cry or that they can always get another dog/ cat/ goldfish are not having their feelings acknowledged. They may then think it is wrong or silly to feel the way they do.
Many parents simply do not know what to say or do and so say or do nothing. Again the child learns that his feelings are unimportant. Death is not a topic that many of us are comfortable speaking about but there are numerous things we can do to help...
Let the child grieve. Let them cry. Acknowledge their feelings. If the animal is not yet dead (grieving can start before the pet has died, if the death is imminent) ask how the child would like to say good-bye to their pet and give them some special time alone to say good-bye. If the animal is already dead, and you have access to the body, and your child would like to say good-bye, then let him. Even if you cannot bear the thought yourself, do not stop the child. This is an important part of the grieving process. Often a child who has not seen the body of their pet does not believe that it is dead!
You might like to include the child in any decision making. For instance you may have a choice in what to do with the pet's body. Many pets are buried at home in the garden. Many are cremated.
One touching way to say good-bye to a beloved pet is to have a ceremony for the pet. Even if you do not have your pet's body, you can still have a simple celebration where you gather together your pet's belongings- collar, bowl etc. and tell stories about your special memories of that animal.
A ceremony is one way of memorializing their pet, another might be to make a photograph album or keep a lock of hair.
A new pet?
The question of whether or not to get a new pet might arise. This is a very individual decision. It may be better for families to wait until every member of the family is ready to accept a new arrival. Remember a new pet does not replace an old one. It is a unique individual.
Look after yourself
While all this is going on with your child, it is important to look after yourself, if you are coming to terms with the pet's death. Look after yourself physically – get rest, eat if possible and do not resort to drugs and alcohol to block out the grief. Look after yourself emotionally – allow yourself time to grieve. Crying helps.
Give yourself time to heal. Do not be too hasty and throw away your pet’s collar, bowl etc. They may become important keepsakes later. Dealing with your loss and the passage of time are the two best healers.
You will never forget your pet but at some stage you will be able to look back without tears and remember all the happy times. Your ability to cope with grief in a caring, responsible manner will benefit your child throughout the rest of their life.
Also read: Losing an animal friend