Pet Loss: A Childhood Rite of Passage

PET LOSS – A Childhood Rite of Passage by Cook Rodgers. From Natural Transitions Magazine Vol 6 #1. Print copies from Magcloud.

 

The simple cross, crafted of two small pieces of wood, had the letters SUF printed on it in a child’s scrawl.   Our 10-year-old son told us it stood for “Skinny Used to be Fat”.   My husband and I had just helped our beloved cat Buffington Electric Buffalo Limited, otherwise known as Buffy, cross the threshold. We decided that the best thing would be to give him and his younger brother a meaningful task to help with her burial and they decided to head for the wood shop to make some crosses. They were not present for the euthanasia but helped us prepare her body for burial in our backyard under a favorite bush and lower her into the ground. Amid tears, goodbyes and thank you’s we covered her body with soil, planted the wooden cross, and the boys gathered flowers to place on her grave.

We made the decisions around Buffy’s death one at a time, taking into full consideration the children and their feelings.   Our grief was also present. She was, after all, one of our animal “children” before the human ones joined us. Buffy was a vital member of our family from the time she came to us as a tiny kitten and her sweet and loving personality grew as long as her name. She was a great source of joy for our family 17 years and it was hard to let her go. But we knew it was time.

When the time comes that we must make decisions around end-of-life care for our beloved pets it is important to consider the children: their emotions, their fears, their very tender places; helping them confide in adults and openly grieve without embarrassment and shame. While each child is an individual who will react to the death of their pet in their own way, it can be helpful to have some guidelines, especially when we are dealing with our own grief.

A pet may provide the first exposure involving an emotional attachment that a child will have involving serious illness, injury, the natural aging process, or the finality of death. Frequently, it is a child’s first experience with the loss of a loved one. The pet is usually part of their everyday lives. My kindergarten teacher friend says that if you listen carefully to the words that children express about the death of a pet or that of a grandparent, they are the same. A child’s grief reaction may not be as intense to the death of a pet as it would be for the death of a person, but sometimes it is.

CHILDREN’S GRIEF

Each Child is Unique. How any one child will react to a pet’s death is dependent on the following factors:

—Individual temperament and the child’s relationship with the pet – if a child has formed a deep attachment, he or she will grieve the loss of a beloved friend. Some children have a strong connection to the animal world. Sometimes they confide their inner thoughts, fears and dreams to their animal companion as I did to my Boston terrier, Sergeant, when the chaos of my large family became too much for me.

—The circumstances of the death – if it was prolonged, sudden, or if the child was present or involved.

—Other circumstances in a child’s family life – major stresses or changes like moving, or other loss.

—Gender – Boys may hold more of their grief inside. At least traditionally this is what was asked of them. We can hope that this is changing

—Age – A child views the processes of death differently at different developmental stages.

Under the age of five there is little understanding of what it means to die. A child knows that death is different from life, but doesn’t understand that it is permanent. Often a child will show a curiosity about the physical processes of death. Emotions may or may not be expressed but a child will be affected by the emotions of other family members.

 

Around the age of seven, a child begins to understand the finality of death. This will bring new thoughts and questions. Some of them may be fearful. When a child is old enough to realize that a loved pet will never return, he or she will experience true grief.

By the age of nine or ten a child begins to understand death more in the same way that an adult does – that it is inevitable and will happen to every living being. This may cause feelings of insecurity as a child thinks about his or her own death or the deaths of parents or close family members.

HOW CHILDREN GRIEVE

In many ways, a child’s grief reaction to the loss of a beoved person or pet is similar to an adult’s. He or she may cry and show sadness, act depressed or withdrawn, or seek comfort from others. But children also process death in ways that are different from adults. Sometimes they think that death is caused by doing something bad. A child may blame herself for the death because she forgot to feed the pet one day or let it run without its leash. A child may also become angry at parents or a veterinarian because she thinks that adults have the power to prevent death.

 

Most children will work through their grief very easily, with a few tears and some expressed sadness. But because their feelings are often reflected in their behavior, rather than words, sometimes there are challenges, which a parent may not immediately connect with the loss. Feelings about the loss of a pet may cause regression in behavior – becoming fearful and clinging to adults, having nightmares or problems sleeping. They may also act out anger, with some aggression toward people or property. Sometimes it may be hard to focus on school and homework, so it is important to alert teachers and other adults about the loss of their pet.

LENGTH OF GRIEF

It is characteristic of young children to show grief for very short periods of time interspersing it in the normal activities of playing and living. Over time, a child’s grief reactions should start to lessen as he or she begins to turn attention to other things. Symptoms of grief may continue to surface for a long time after the loss of a special pet, but they should diminish over time and eventually disappear. Sometimes when a child hits the challenges of a new developmental stage, memories will sometimes be reprocessed with a new understanding. If grief lingers, it may be necessary to discover if there are other underlying issues that could be explored with the help of a professional counselor.

ROLE OF THE PARENT

A child will need loving and supportive attention. If you are also grieving, share it with her. She will be looking to you as her role model. Make sure your child knows it is okay to grieve for a loss and never make it seem silly or inappropriate.

Openness and honesty

If there is an accident or the family pet becomes seriously ill, be open and honest about your pet’s well-being. Hiding or avoiding the facts will only cause confusion and anxiety. Your explanations of what is happening to your pet can best be guided by the child’s questions, which should be encouraged and answered in simple terms for the very young, and in more depth for the child who has a deeper level of understanding. We can help a young child process their thoughts and feelings through play and using toys, drawing pictures, or telling a story.

Knowing your own feelings will make it easier to reach out to your child in an appropriate and sympathetic way.

A first inclination is often to wish to shelter a child from the truth of a pet’s death. We may feel that a child is too young to understand what is happening. But even if a child’s processing is different, it is important to be truthful.

The Right Words

Use correct but simple terms when talking to a child about death. Young children take words very literally. If you tell a child that the pet “went on a trip”, “ was lost” or “is sleeping”, she may wait for the pet to come back, go looking for the pet, or be afraid to go to sleep. It is very appropriate to talk about the finality of death and the sadness of a pet’s death even to a very young child. Sometimes we may need to explain that death isn’t “catching” or that dying has nothing to do with being good or bad. One way to explain a pet’s death is that the pet was very, very old; very, very sick; or very, very hurt.

 

Children are so naturally curious they will likely ask questions about the physical aspects of death, such as “What will happen to his body in the ground?” or “Won’t she get cold?” They can be answered simply. Usually if a child wants more information they will ask.   As a child grows, her view of death matures and more information can be processed. Eventually she will be able to think and talk about the medical and spiritual aspects of death.

Euthanasia – A Difficult Decision

A unique aspect to the death of a pet is the question of euthanasia. Often the difficult choice is given to a family whether or not to “put a pet to sleep” as it has traditionally been referred to. We are asked to make this choice for the pet, to the best of our ability.   Some veterinarians use the term “helping to die” in lieu of “putting to sleep” when young children are involved. Even though a child will not have responsibility for the final decision, it is important that his feelings be considered. Understanding that painless euthanasia has become necessary because of the suffering of the pet is important. In some circumstances, it may be better to keep the discussion and decision from the child and give him the comfort that trusted adults are in charge.

Should a child be present for euthanasia? If he or she has had a close relationship with the pet, has been helping to care for the pet and it feels age appropriate, then you should consider their choice to be present. Prior preparation from both you and the veterinarian is crucial.   If a child chooses not to be present then he should have the opportunity to say goodbye to the pet, and see and touch, if desired, the body after the death. This leaves no question in a child’s mind as to whether the death took place.

Celebrating a Pet’s Life

After a special pet dies, a memorial acknowledges their importance in the lives of family members. The purpose is to help families finalize the death and gather personal memories. A service could be a simple burial, or a scattering of ashes with words or songs. A tree, a bush or flowers could be planted. Perhaps the family would like to make a contribution to an animal shelter in their pet’s name or prepare a clay or ink paw print or take a hair clipping. What is important is for a child to actively participate so that his relationship with the pet can be memorialized in some way that feels meaningful to him.

Memories

Gradually, grief will be replaced with special happy, sad, funny and fond memories. Creating a story or a poem about the death event itself, some special characteristics of the pet or a special shared activity between pet and child are helpful. In my husband’s family they started a tradition of finding a kitty or doggy star in the sky, so you could always look up and find their star to help answer the question “Where do they go?   A photo book or a shadow box is also a fine remembrance.

A New Pet

When is a child ready to replace a pet? When she has worked through most of his or her grief and starting to move on with life – not before. It may be tempting for a parent to replace the pet immediately for the child’s sake, but if the child is still grieving it will unlikely bring them out of it. If a pet is replaced too soon, it is possible that the child will react with anger or rejection. Acceptance of the new pet may signify betrayal of the one that has died. Waiting a while to replace a pet tells a child that life is valued, and not easily replaceable. Healing involves taking the time to let go, allowing the memories and emotions settle before turning love and attention to a new living being.

The last and a most precious gift our beloved pets give to our children is in their passing, providing an opportunity to bond as a family and share love and connection with one another. How we approach pet loss with our children will set the stage for healthy grieving for all the other deaths and losses they will experience throughout their lives.

About the Author

Cook Rodgers MS has a background in Human Development, Family Studies, and Animal Assisted Therapy. She shares life with her partner Pete Rodgers, DVM, who has helped many families make those difficult end of life decisions for their pets. They have eulogized a multitude of their own beloved pets with their two sons, now grown, and have created a “grotto” on their land that is dedicated to their special companions.

 

 

 

 

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