We who choose to surround ourselves with lives even more temporary than our own, live within a fragile circle, easily and often breached. Unable to accept its awful gaps, we still would live no other way ~ Irving Townsend
The simple joy that companion animals bring to our lives is priceless. Our pets cheer us, comfort us, delight us, sustain us and love us without condition. Our family of pets is a fragile circle of life. Dogs and cats live a dozen years or so. Horses average two decades, maybe a little more. Smaller animals may grace our lives for a year or less. We will outlive our companion animals and their deaths will break our hearts. If we continue to live with pets, we will experience this grief many times.
The sadness we feel when a beloved pet dies is natural. It is part of the pain that comes with losing someone we love. But pet loss is often made more painful for children because adults do not understand how deep the attachment to a pet can be. Additionally, the death of a pet can be murky waters for the parent to wade through with their child.
I fully believe in honoring the circle of life and this includes Tiny. In her three short years, she has been with me when I have ended the suffering of many of our ill family pets. While many parents would balk at the thought of exposing such a small child to euthanasia, I believe that just as our pets are a part of the family, our entire family should be given the opportunity to be with them as they move away from their life on earth.
Has this been tough on Tiny? Yes, at times. This year alone we have had to put several of our cats to sleep. Tiny has become very leery of the vet's office thinking that every time we go, we will leave empty handed. However, Tiny insists on coming with me knowing full well that our beloved kitty will be passing away with our help.
Tiny is in tune with death in ways I cannot even understand. She is also in tune with all of our pets. It would devastate her MORE not to be there when we eased their suffering.
We have all of our animals cremated and Tiny has created quite a ritual when we bring the “spirit” home to join the others. It is her way of saying goodbye and coping with the loss.
This approach probably won't be comfortable for a lot of parents and that is ok. I know Tiny and I know what she can handle.
Here are some suggestions as to how you might consider helping your child understand and grieve the loss of a family pet:
- Prepare your child (if there is time to do so) for the death of the pet. Help your child understand that your pet is old/sick/injured and that a time will soon come with your pet will no longer be able to live a happy life.
- Allow your child to say goodbye whether this is at home, at the vet's office, or somewhere else. If your child wants to write a goodbye letter or draw a picture, by all means allow this to happen!
- Engage in any sort of “play” which is themed on the death of the pet. Try not to stifle a child's natural urge to understand and process death through play.
- Answer questions honestly and age appropriately. A 2 year old can understand that “Spike is not coming home. He was sick and has passed away.” That child may not completely comprehend the permanence of death, but he or she will understand “not coming home.” A ten year old would be able to digest a deeper explanation.
- Ensure that your child does not think that he or she caused the death. This happens often!
- Encourage children to express their grief by drawing pictures of their pet, and sharing what the pictures mean to them.
- Make a scrapbook with photos as well as drawn pictures of the pet and family members. Write memories beneath or beside them.
- If a pet has been cremated, a special place can be arranged in the home for the urn as well as just a few pictures and mementos of the pet. Make sure that children are allowed to participate in the decision-making process of how this might look.
- If the ashes are to be scattered bring your child if you can. Perhaps even chose a place that was special to the both of them.
- If a pet is to be buried you might consider planting a living memorial, such as a tree or bush in memory of your pet. Allow your child to choose the plant and encourage frequent visits to the plant.
Interested in some books that might possibly help your child with the loss of your beloved pet? Check these out: