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The death of the family pet

Mar 22, 2010 | By Michelle Rivera

Dealing with the loss of beloved furry family member can be devasting.
Some tips to help your child, and you, deal with the grief, sorrow and sadness.

Child hugging her petJudith Viorst probably didn't realize when she was writing The Tenth Good Thing About Barney (Alladin Publishers, 1987) that she was, in fact, writing a tome that would serve as a template for helping children cope with the death of a beloved companion animal.
In this bittersweet children’s book, Viorst discusses the death of Barney, a fictional cat who was especially close to the child. When the child couldn’t shake the sense of sadness and loneliness she felt after losing her cat, her mother presented her with a thoughtful and insightful remedy: write a list of the ten things you loved most about Barney and we will read them at Barney’s memorial.

And so the child sits down to write about her cat whom she loved with all her heart. She said he was warm, and friendly, and purred a lot. She said that he only once caught a bird so he was nice too. She listed nine things and presented the list to her mother who, upon reading the list, commented that there were only nine items on the list and that surely the child could think of one more thing. And so the child did, and shared it at Barney’s memorial service.

Did I make the right decision?

Child mourning death of petHumane Educators and Animal-Assisted therapists are frequently called upon to assist an anxious parent who is trying to help his or her child come to terms with the fact that a beloved family member has died. It’s tough enough for parents who are grieving themselves. And sometimes the pain is compounded by regret.
It’s not unusual to blame oneself for maybe not having done enough to keep the animal alive.
What if I had gotten him to the vet sooner, or what if I had elected to go ahead with that expensive surgery, or what if….. and so it goes. The “what ifs” will get you every time.
And then, in addition to ones’ own mourning, there is the responsibility to a hurt child as well. And when your child is hurting, well, that is the tenderest pain of all.

Just like it’s important for your friends and family members to validate your pain, so you must confirm your child’s pain as well. About the worst thing you can say to someone who has had a loss is to suggest that the beloved was “only a dog” and that you can surely “get another one.”
That counsel does not work for a family in mourning any more than it can pacify a woman who has lost a baby. If anything, it aggravates the situation because you are suggesting that the pain cannot be real since it was only an animal.
Moreover, suggesting that an animal can be replaced only makes your child suffer more because she or he knows in his or her heart that this is untrue. Loved ones cannot be replaced. Of course you can get another dog or cat, but there will never be another like the one you lost. So validate that loss, let your child know that it’s ok to grieve in any way that s/he must and for as long as s/he needs to.
Naturally, if the mourning seems to be lasting too long, you should consult a therapist. But know that people mourn in their own way and this is especially true of children.

As an adult, we can understand the process of death. We know the mechanics of why the animal died. But a child cannot comprehend that as well, they can only feel the deep sense of loss. So be especially loving, but not excessively doting because all that will do is cause the child to maintain the affect in order to enjoy all the extra attention.

Memento for a beloved past pet

What you can do to make it better

Have a memorial for the animal. This brings closure. Even if you have not had the animal cremated and the cremains returned to you, you can still have a small service with close friends and family. It could even be as small a gesture as looking at photographs of the beloved together.
Encourage your child to say ten good things about his or her pet. This helps the child share his or her pain.
Finally, don’t rush out and get another companion animal. Sometimes that can backfire because the new companion animal will never act as perfect as the last one, at least not in the beginning, and that could make the pain that much more acute.
It’s good to get another companion animal eventually though, because the new one can provide some therapy for a hurting child. Oh, and when you do get that next one, please get him from a shelter. You’ll be saving a life and demonstrating compassion for your child. And more compassion in our world is a wonderful thing!

About the author:
Michelle Rivera is the author of several books on dogs including Hospice Hounds - Animals and healing at the borders of death; Canines in the Classroom - Raising humane children through interactions with animals; Do Dogs Have Belly Buttons? - 100 questions and answers about dogs; On Dogs and Dying; The Simple Little Vegan Do and The Simple Little Vegan Slow Cooker.
She is also an essayist, published in the vegetarian essay book, Voices from the Garden, as well as free-lance writer/editor and blogger with PetaPrime. Michelle lives in South Florida with her husband, John, her "pack" of one dog and three cats. She is the mother of two and grandmother of three.
Click here to contact or read more articles by Michelle Riveria.

Tags : children, kids, pet death, grieving, coping, tips, advice

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