All too often, pet death is discounted as not important, and those undermining words, “We’ll get you another one,” are offered as a hollow consolation. They diminish the love the child has for their pet, whether it is a goldfish, a hamster, a dog, a cat or a horse. The death of a pet can serve as a “teachable moment” to include children as recognized mourners and prepare them for other deaths or losses that might occur in their lives.
The story of Sammy
Sammy was Jasmine’s pet dog. He was hit by a car and severely injured with no chance of recovery, while Jasmine, a first grader, was at school. She came home and her dog was gone. Jasmine needed to understand what happened to Sammy. Mom explained Sammy was hurt so badly and suffering the vet had to “put him to sleep.” Jasmine began to worry . . . “If I go to sleep, I might not come back.”
Jasmine knew Sammy was dead, yet she still wondered if he would wake up soon and come back home. Mother explained, “No, Sammy can’t come back from the dead. Death and sleep are not the same.”
There’s a better way to help Jasmine grieve. It was okay for her to see her mother crying because she got sad when she saw Sammy’s favorite ball. Mom loved him too.
Kids also need explanations of what has happened so that missing pieces won’t be filled in with their own unrealistic imagination and interpretation.
Young children should be given the simplest information possible while still sharing needed facts for their growth. “How did Sammy die? What did the vet do? Who took him to the vet? Did he cry? Where was he buried? Can I see him?” All of these questions need to be answered. Finally we need to say, “Sammy won’t be back. We won’t see him again. His body has stopped working. It is very sad and we will miss him very much. We can give Sammy a funeral and say goodbye to him.”
Jasmine needs to work through the following various feelings associated with grieving:
Understand that the loss is real
Feel the hurt
Learn to live life without the loss object
Transform the emotional energy of grief into life again
Jasmine can commemorate Sammy’s death informally or with a real ceremony. As long as she is involved if she chooses to be, she will be able to express her grief. In this way, Jasmine can affirm the value of the life that was Sammy’s. Jasmine decided to invite her family, neighborhood friends, and two pet dogs in the neighborhood. She read poetry, played music, and planted flowers as a tribute. She put a picture of her and Sammy by her bed to help remember him.
Once Jasmine had understood, grieved, and commemorated her dog’s death, she felt more ready to “go on.” This readiness involves knowing it is all right to start life again -to play with other dogs or even hope to get a new one. Going on is not the same thing as forgetting. Sammy will live in Jasmine’s heart. She may even re-grieve on Sammy’s anniversary of the day that he died. Yet Jasmine’s grief experiences with Sammy can strengthen her ability to cope with other losses that she will assuredly face in life.
Let kids know
“Sammy won’t be in your daily life, but he will be in your memory.”
Let kids talk
“I’m sad, angry, or frightened about what happened to Sammy. I feel so lonely without him.”
“What do you mean when you say ‘put to sleep’?”
Let kids participate
Jasmine can choose what to do with Sammy’s toys, bowl, or collar. Where should we put his pictures? What kind of a ceremony would he like to have? Who would he like to invite?
Let kids be unique
Each child is different and so is his or her grief. Jasmine wants to plant a tree near Sammy’s favorite spot in the backyard. It is her special way of remembering Sammy.
Resources for children about pet loss and death
Children also grieve: Talking about death and healing by Linda Goldman (2005)
Goodbye Mousie by Robie Harris (2001)
Zach and his dog: A story of bonding, love, and loss for children and adults to share together by David Meagher (2009)
Forever Friends: Activities for kids who have lost a pet by Susan Weaver (2010).
Copyright © 2014
Adapted from Life and Loss: A Guide to Help Grieving Children, 2nd Edition, 2001, (3rd Edition in press, 2012), Taylor and Francis
(This article cannot be reproduced without permission.)