Helping Children When a Pet Dies
Q: Our family dog is 13 years old, and we know that her end is near. Our two boys, Kevin, 4, and Brandon, 7, dearly love Muffin. How can we help them with their impending loss?
Everyone in your family will feel the loss of this special family member. We recommend that you consider your children's loss from two standpoints. First, they will no longer have Muffin. Second, her death is the particular reason for their loss. Your children will have to confront loss in general and confront death specifically.
Life is filled with losses, either temporary or permanent. Grandparents visit and return home, teachers and friends come and go, families move and children lose cherished environments, toys break or get lost. As children grow, there also are increasing internal losses as they relinquish unrealizable hopes and dreams or physical charms and abilities fade, as examples.
The ability to manage loss well enables one to maintain a good spirit about life. Let's address three areas that are important to managing loss well:
Accepting emotion - Loss stirs sadness and other feelings. For example, Kevin or Brandon may have turned to Muffin when they were scared or lonely, in which case they may feel more anxiety or loneliness. They may be angry about what seems to be an unfair turn of events.
Accept their feelings. Try not to talk your children out of how they feel or provide remedies that inadvertently teach them to ignore their authentic selves. Giving hugs and saying, "I know that it hurts," are often the best things to do. You will have to see them endure painful feelings, which will be trying for you.
Individualized loss - Kevin and Brandon love Muffin in different ways and for different reasons. Talk with each boy about what Muffin meant to them and find ways for them to reminisce. You will help them learn to be more mindful about what a loved one means to them and why they love, which will strengthen their ability to form healthy relationships and to relinquish them when necessary.
You can reinforce your children's understanding that each relationship is unique by not quickly replacing Muffin. A quick replacement can foster a sense that loved ones are interchangeable. It is better to provide at least a few months during which they can grow in their capacity to bear and master loss rather than becoming immersed in the excitement of a new pet.
Activity - We think it is important for children to be able to respond actively to life's trials. Their sense of well-being is strengthened when they recognize that they are not helpless in the face of adversity, large or small, and especially when they participate in figuring out and carrying out the actions. Talking and reminiscing is the simplest way to be active.
After Muffin's death, your children can make a memory scrapbook or compose a poem. If there is a gravesite, they can visit and leave something.
It will probably be best if you discuss Muffin's impending death with them, especially if you will be euthanizing her. In that case, one or both might choose to go with you to the vet. Your children's ability to make choices and to feel a part of the process will be in their best interests — unless you felt it would be too much for them.
Learning about death
Your children may or may not have encountered death before in a personally meaningful way. In either case, you can help them begin to develop some "mental muscles" for one of life's most challenging aspects. Every family has its own particular way of explaining death, ranging from humanistic to religious explanations. As you explain your beliefs, we encourage you to offer only the explanations and comfort that you truly believe. For example, some families say that their pet is in pet heaven. We encourage parents to offer such a view only if they believe it. Otherwise, they are offering as truth what they think is a tale to decrease children's pain.
Not all myths parents present as truth to children are problems. The Santa Claus story is culturally endorsed and prolongs a childhood magical feeling, quite different from a myth constructed by a family to avoid uncomfortable feelings.
You will have to deal with the nature of death as part of life. Both of your boys are old enough for you to explain that Muffin's death means that she will never move, think or feel again.
It is best not to compare death with sleep because it is inaccurate and the comparison also leads some children to develop anxieties about sleep.
Whatever you believe about an afterlife, it will be helpful to explain about bodily decomposition or cremation and the cycle of life. Muffin will continue living in their memories and by nourishing plants and animals. One resource about the life cycle you may find helpful with younger children is The Fall of Freddie the Leaf: A Story of Life for All Ages by Leo Buscaglia.
Your family's impending loss will be felt individually, and your boys will have an opportunity to grow as individuals. It also will be a family loss and an opportunity for your family to grow closer.
To submit a question about children's behavior or emotional development, send an e-mail to: email@example.com, marked Ask Lucy Daniels.