SIMPLYkc MAGAZINE – OCTOBER 2012
PARENTING: BY STACEY HATTON
In many families a pet is more than just a dog or cat; they are members of the family. Therefore, when an illness, old age, or an accident occurs to your pet this can be devastating for everyone. Especially for children who may never have experienced loss, it is essential to teach them how to cope with grief, instead of brushing their emotions under the rug. Nemours Foundation says, “Because a pet’s death might be their first time losing a loved one, the grieving process can help kids learn how to cope with other losses throughout life.”
BREAKING BAD NEWS TO KIDS
Find a location where the children feel safe, comfortable, with limited distractions (preferably without the pet nearby). According to your children’s ages and their developmental needs, you may need to have separate conversations if their ages are far apart. Toddlers and teenagers obviously cannot process loss the same way.
Dr. Melissa Minor, a veterinarian at Nall Hills Animal Hospital in Overland Park recommends, “I think it is important to be honest with the child and say the family pet has passed away (using age-appropriate language), rather than finding another explanation such as the pet’s ‘going off to camp.’”
“It’s OK to use words like ‘death’ and ‘dying,’” says Nemours. Or if the pet is going to be euthanized, you could tell the child, “The veterinarian will give our pet a shot that first puts it to sleep and then stops the heart from beating.”
Younger children may need to ask questions, but offering only answers to their direct questions is usually best. Less is more works with this stage. Dr. Minor says, “My own kids, when very young, asked if our family pet would ever come back. I think that’s a great question for a young child who doesn’t yet understand the permanence of death.”
The grade school aged child typically has more questions and may want a chance to say goodbye beforehand. This is appropriate for that age. The older mature teen might want to be present to comfort the pet at the time of the event. It is an individual parent’s call to determine if your child can handle this and if it would be helpful for them in their grieving.
COPING WITH HEARTBREAK
Death of a loved one is such a rollercoaster ride of emotions. Just as in adults, kids experience sadness, anger, loneliness, or even guilt if the child didn’t treat the pet well at the end of its life. Parents need to help the children understand these emotions are normal and will come and go – and that it’s fine to feel that way. Also, if they don’t want to talk at first, let them know you are always there for them when they need to talk.
Parents must demonstrate their own grief about losing the family pet. This will help the children know it’s acceptable to feel that way. Parents shouldn’t cry in private. Talk about good or funny times you had with the pet, or share stories about your favorite pet growing up as a child. This will enable your child to openly share his emotions.
Lisa Joyce, Prairie Village mom of four, had her beloved family dog Kelly for 15 years. Due to old age, their pet was struggling with health issues until finally Kelly began wandering off and getting lost. Lisa and her husband knew it was time to have the talk with their eldest child, who was 12, so he could say his goodbyes.
“The librarian at Johnson County Library suggested a book called Dog Heaven (by Cynthia Rylant) for her younger kids,” said Lisa. “It was a big help.” Lisa answered the younger kids’ questions when needed and then she said they eventually stopped asking.
After raw emotions have calmed down, and healing begins to take place, it is time to work together as a family and move forward. There are various creative ways to celebrate the life of the family pet that can be planned by the entire family. A funeral/memorial ceremony can be cathartic. A tree, shrub or perennial flower can be planted or a family prayer, song, or skit could be performed to share funny times with your missed pet. Or, create a location in the yard to place an outdoor statuary or a homemade stepping stone made by the kids. Even making a scrapbook dedicated to the life of the pet would be healing and create a precious memory for the family to look back on as well.
It is important that your children know the pain of loss does not go away overnight. The hurt will subside eventually and be replaced with happy memories of their pal. Nemours suggests, “When the time is right, you might consider adopting a new pet — not as a replacement, but as a way to welcome another animal friend into your family.”
Lisa’s family didn’t get a new dog after the loss of Kelly. The summer before their dog had passed, they got a new puppy. This way they had time to train it, for they already knew Kelly’s health was declining. Lisa reported, “The kids didn’t ask for another dog since they had the puppy.”
Sometimes all it takes is time…and a new puppy!