When A Pet Dies (page 2)
Q. Our family dog is very old and having some serious health problems and we do not expect him to live much longer. What suggestions do you have regarding talking to young children about the death of a pet?
Ah, pets. We love them. We care for them. In return, they love us with all their hearts. But they don’t live as long as we do. And when they are gone, we notice what an often surprisingly large contribution they made to the atmosphere of the family.
A. I think you are wise to do what you can to prepare your child, and yourself, for the impending loss of a family pet. The death of a beloved animal is often a child’s first personal experience of death and the mysteries it presents – be ready for a variety of feelings and the many questions your child may have now. You may want to read some of the books suggested below, or find a way to lightly work the subject into a car ride conversation.
The illness of a pet can offer a family valuable opportunities for open caring and the sharing of feelings. Several families we know have turned the dying days of a pet into a time to spend hours (yes, even in this time-starved day and age) or days with family members stationed near the pet, talking to him, making sure he is comfortable, and standing watch together in a long, loving good-bye. These families have made different choices about whether or not to have their pet euthanized, but all of them have been very clear that those days of close caring were a good-bye. This caring and mourning period can bring family members closer, and can sometimes help to heal other issues that stand between members of the family.
If there’s not a family effort to pour attention into caring for the pet together, the death of a pet may momentarily disrupt the child’s sense of safety and connection, and leave him feeling needy or out of control. Children may react to death with sadness, anger, disbelief, a cranky inability to get along with other family members, or even an escalation of fears. Some children hear vets or other adults talk about putting an animal “to sleep” and become uncomfortable at nighttime, or convinced if they go to sleep they themselves might never wake again. Extra closeness and patience may be needed.
But before you focus on how to help the kids through this experience, make sure that you take time to talk with your partner or a very understanding friend who is able to listen supportively while you talk about your own feelings around the pet’s death. You may find yourself thinking of other experiences you’ve had with death or even the death of your own treasured childhood pet. The more you can talk these things out and express whatever you are feeling or thinking about the event, the more clear you will be to help your children sort through their emotions and questions.
Many children will use the death of a pet to explore the wider issue of death itself. They may ask if they are going to die. Or, perhaps even more importantly to them, they may demand to know if you are ever going to die and insist you promise never to leave them. Be as gently honest with them as their age allows and give them your attention and reassuring presence as they sort through the many conflicting feelings they will have. Children need to hear that we will do everything we can to stay alive for them, and that we plan to be with them for a long, long time.
Separations can become difficult while children are adjusting to the death of a pet, especially if the pet left the house never to return and died somewhere else outside of the child’s presence. You will need to think carefully about whether or not your individual child would benefit from being present at the death of an animal who is being peacefully put to sleep. And also, consider how you would like to handle the situation if your pet dies unexpectedly at home. Do you want your child to be able to see the animal once it is dead? Will you allow them to touch the now dead animal’s fur? In our experience, it is very helpful to children to be as close to all stages of the process as possible, and to be allowed to plan any final ceremony for the pet that your family might have. This kind of final good-bye, telling of stories and sharing of wishes and observations can do a lot to help children feel the closeness of your family and the goodness of going through hard times together.
At some point, perhaps even weeks after the pet has died, most children will need to cry fully and perhaps also feel frightened about the pet’s death. The upset is likely to erupt by way of an unrelated imperfection that brings forth feelings: a cookie that breaks, the end of the last story at bedtime, or the necessity to wash hands before dinner. While a child experiences this upset, he needs the love and caring of someone who offers him warmth and safety. He may or may not talk about the pet he misses. If he does, let him know that you understand it is very hard to lose that pet. It’s fine to tell him it’s hard for you too, and it’s fine to cry along with him if feelings are sparked for you too. Children whose feelings are listened to and understood become more confident, and feel closer to the people who listened while they cried.
Here’s a story from a mother we know, whose family did some significant healing through their gathering to say goodbye to their dog.
After 28 years of being together, my husband and I divorced. My son and two daughters were in their teens. The divorce and the years leading up to it had been very painful for each of us in the family. After the divorce and the heartache it brought, our dog Molly and I became companions, and it felt to me like we both were healing. She had not been given enough attention during many years of her life, because of the dysfunction in our family.
When my children were 24, 22, and 19, Molly stopped eating, and it was clear that something major was wrong. My son and I took her to the vet, who said that she was dying. He suggested that he could put her to sleep. My son and I decided to take her home, so we could say goodbye to her. I wanted this to be a family goodbye, so I called the girls and ask them to come home from college. They weren’t too far from home. Late that night, my son went to bring my younger daughter home. My middle daughter also came that night.
We put Molly on a blanket in the middle of the living room, and we brought sleeping bags and blankets so they all could sleep around her, at arm’s length from her. Everybody was tender toward her, and we cried. It was the first time since the divorce three years before that we had cried together. Molly allowed us to do that. It seemed to me to be a very important thing to be able to do together.
The next morning, my middle daughter said that she felt strongly that we should not put Molly to sleep. She felt that it would be killing her, that it would be murder. She cried hard as she expressed her thoughts. I said that we wouldn’t do anything until she wanted to. Later, my daughter watched quietly as Molly tried to walk, fell, and struggled to get back up. After awhile, she said that she thought Molly was suffering, and that we should take her to the vet.
We put Molly in my daughter’s car. My son wanted to drive separately. I think he wanted to cry privately, before he cried with us.
The vet was wonderful. My daughter was crying, and begged him, “Can’t you do anything for her?” He didn’t say a thing. He warmly opened his arms, and hugged her long and hard. He said, “You can stay here with Molly for as long as you want.” There were lots of tears and crying, and we each talked to her.
We stayed for a long while in the room with her. The vet assured my daughter that Molly would die in peace. When we were ready, he came and he injected her, and then she was gone.
We brought her ashes home, and I told the children that when we plant a fruit tree, we will have a ceremony and put her ashes at the root of the tree. I will plant a fig tree this spring, and we will remember her together.
The chance to be together and cry together after the divorce and so many difficult years was the main gift Molly gave us. It was a healing time, and we came through it more aware of being close to each other.
My girls and I still cry every time we see a yellow Labrador retriever like Molly.
Reprinted with the permission of Hand in Hand Parenting. © 1997-2011 Hand in Hand
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