Thursday, March 3, 2011

Tough Stuff: Handling the Loss of a Pet

You dread it even though you know it’s coming. Not only does the death of a family pet break your child’s heart, it also breaks your heart, and it hurts you that it hurts your child. It’s a tough situation to navigate, especially with young children who don’t quite understand the concept of death yet (and really, do any of us?).

I remember when our family dog, Max, died. I was in first grade. Max was old and he had one bottom tooth that had somehow gotten jarred so that it stuck straight out like a tusk, even when his mouth was closed. We lovingly called him Snaggle-Tooth. Max had gotten overweight in his senior years and my sister gladly aided in this endeavor by sitting on his back in the garage and feeding him her leftover Halloween candy. Max happily obliged, chewing with all but his snaggle tooth. One day- the details here are hazy- but one day I came home from school and Max wasn’t in the garage. Max had died, my mother told me. I went up into my favorite tree in the front yard- the tree where I could sit and bend at the waist the limbs supported my back and legs- and I cried.

Max, pre snaggle-tooth. He may be looking at you with those sad,
SPCA commercial eyes, but I assure you he lived a long, happy,
candy-filled life. See how his belly just hangs in the back? Yep.
Years later my parents told me that they had put Max to sleep. He had cancer and was suffering- it was the best decision. My mom had gone with and comforted him the whole way through. We eventually got another dog- Fudgie (named after the book Superfudge and a sly but genius move on the part of my sister to off her then nickname to the family pet) but Max always held a special, snaggle-toothed place in my heart.

I don’t think there’s an easy way to handle the death of a pet with young children. There’s not an easy way to tell them, an easy way to help them grieve, or an easy way to help them understand it. But based on my own experience and what I know about children and how their minds work, here’s what I would suggest:

  • Be sensitive, of course. Let them be upset. Don’t point out reasons why they shouldn’t be upset (he lived a long life, think of all the good times). Save those for a little later, after the upset has had time to sink in.
  • Answer tough questions the best you can, but keep age in mind. Questions about death will inevitably come up, but keep in mind that young children don’t require a complicated answer. If you’re religious- ‘She went to Heaven’ may do quite nicely. If not, ‘Well, we’ll bury her in the backyard’ may be a sufficient answer for your youngster. Long, complicated answers may just confuse children more.
  • Don’t talk about getting another pet right away. Give your child time to fully grieve the loss.
  • In contrast, don’t say, ‘We’re never getting another dog/cat/hamster again!’ This will hurt your child’s feelings and make your child feel like you think the pet was not an important part of the family. Even if you feel this way, keep the feelings to yourself while your child grieves.


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