By – Marty Tousley, RN, MS, FT, DCC
Question: I very sadly had to euthanize my wonderful dog of 8 years last night. She has been with me with so many other losses and helped me through. Now here I am and at a loss without her. I am having a terrible time but am contacting you to help with my two grandchildren, who are ages 6 and 3. They live across the street and have grown up with our Great Dane Suzanna, and I am at a loss as to what to say to them that they will understand. They lost their pet turtle just last week and have been sad about that, and now their dog. I was wondering if you could recommend any age appropriate books that I could purchase.
Response: I’m so very sorry to learn of the death of your beloved Suzanna, and I can only imagine how difficult this must be for you and your family. Not only must you deal with your own grief at the loss of your precious companion, but with that of your dear little grandchildren as well.
I certainly understand and appreciate your wanting to share this sad news with your grandchildren in a helpful way. Since these children were especially attached to Suzanna and they’re also mourning the loss of their pet turtle last week, it’s understandable that you’re concerned about how they will react to this.
As I’m sure you know, a child’s concept of death varies with the cognitive and emotional development of the child. Grief is experienced and expressed in different ways at different developmental stages. Your 3-year-old will probably miss Suzanna as a playmate, but not as a love object. Children this age think of death as a temporary and reversible state, and have difficulty understanding that death is permanent. At age 6, though, your other grandchild is old enough to understand that Suzanna has died and will not return, but there is a magical quality to children’s thinking at this age (that is, that something they did, said or thought may have contributed to this death), so it’s important to reassure your little ones that this is not their fault. You might explain that, for a very large dog, Suzanna was very, very old and that when big dogs become very, very old like that, their body parts wear out and just stop working.
I don’t know what you did with Suzanna’s body after death, but you might consider making a scrapbook together, or having your grandchildren draw some pictures of Suzanna, or you could create a special place of remembrance that your grandchildren can go and visit, where they can remember Suzanna by saying a prayer or lighting a votive candle in your dog’s honor. When spring comes, you might suggest planting a flower, a shrub or a memorial garden together, to remember Suzanna by.
It’s important that you encourage all your family members to talk about Suzanna, to recall what was special about your dog and what funny and silly things you all want to remember about your life together. All of these activities serve to demonstrate to your grandchildren that it is healthy and normal to mourn the loss of someone we loved very much, and that it is good to honor the memory of the one who died by creating loving rituals and memorials.
You asked about some of the many wonderful books written for children on the subject of pet loss; this is a very good way to open up a discussion with them about what they are feeling about all of this (e.g., The Tenth Good Thing About Barney, by Judith Viorst — how a boy works through his grief by planning a memorial service for his cat and thinks of ten good things to say about Barney over his grave; or Jasper’s Day – how a family spends its last day with their beloved but terminally ill golden retriever by creating special memories that will last forever). One of my very favorites is Lifetimes: The Beautiful Way to Explain Death to Children, by Bryan Mellonie and Robert Ingpen, which explains life and death in a very caring and sensitive way, and helps us remember and understand that dying is as much a part of living as being born.
If you haven’t already done so, I hope you’ll spend some time exploring my Grief Healing website, which offers valid and reliable information, comfort and support to those who are mourning the loss of a loved one (human or animal). See especially the Pet Loss page on my blog, which lists links to articles I’ve written on various aspects of pet loss. You’ll be especially interested in Helping Children Cope with Pet Euthanasia, Helping a Child with Pet Loss and Using Children’s Books to Help with Pet Loss. See also the articles written by others, which you will find listed on my website’s Pet Loss Articles page, such as Explaining Pet Loss to Children: Six Do’s and Don’ts. I’m sure you’ll appreciate Poem For Max, which was written by a little girl in loving memory of her precious companion, and which appears on my Comfort for Grieving Animal Lovers page.
Another source of help is my booklet, Children and Pet Loss: A Guide for Helping.
I hope this information proves useful to you, my dear. I believe that, difficult as it is, the death of a pet can be a wonderful opportunity to teach children about death as a natural part of living. How you teach this lesson to your grandchildren can have an enormously positive effect on them, and I wish you well in your effort. The very fact that you are seeking advice on how to help your grandchildren with this tells me that you are a wonderful grandmother. Love and blessings to all of you at this sad and difficult time.
About the Author: As both a bereaved parent and a bereaved child herself, Marty Tousley has focused her practice on issues of grief, loss and transition for more than 40 years. She served on the staff of Hospice of the Valley in Phoenix, AZ as a Bereavement Counselor for 17 years, and now moderates her online Grief Healing Discussion Groups. A frequent contributor to healthcare journals, newsletters, books and magazines, she is the author of Finding Your Way through Grief: A Guide for the First Year: Second Edition, The Final Farewell: Preparing for and Mourning the Loss of Your Pet, and Children and Pet Loss: A Guide for Helping. She has written a number of booklets forHospice of the Valley including Explaining the Funeral /Memorial Service to Your Children and Helping Another in Grief, as well as monthly columns, e-books and online e-mail courses for Self-Healing Expressions, addressing various aspects of grief and loss.
With her special interest in grief and the human-animal bond, Marty facilitated a pet loss support group for bereaved animal lovers in Phoenix for 15 years, and now serves as consultant to the Pet Loss Support Group at Hospice of the Valley and to the Halton-Peel Pet Loss Support Group in Ontario, Canada. Her work in pet loss and bereavement has been featured in the pages of Phoenix Magazine, The Arizona Republic, The East Valley Tribune, Arizona Veterinary News, Hospice Horizons, The Forum (ADEC Newsletter), The AAB Newsletter, Dog Fancy Magazine, Cat Fancy Magazine, Woof Magazine and Pet Life Magazine.
On the Web since January, 2000, Marty’s Grief Healing website offers valid and reliable information, comfort and support to anyone who is anticipating or mourning the loss of a loved one, whether a person or a cherished companion animal. She is certified as a Fellow in Thanatology (Death, Dying and Bereavement) by the Association for Death Education and Counseling.
Marty lives with her husband Michael in Sarasota, Florida. She welcomes reader questions and comments, and can be reached through her websites, http://www.griefhealing.com and http://www.griefhealingdiscussiongroups.com. She blogs weekly at Grief Healing and can be found on Twitter, LinkedIn, Facebook and Pinterest.