Helping Children through the Loss of a Pet
Loss of a Pet: A Personal Story
To begin, I have chosen to approach this highly sensitive subject in a manner much different from other articles on the subject. I have chosen to let you hear my personal experience with my son as a premise to each area of the guide, so you may see how my strategies helped or hurt, how they may fit into your situation, and to give a real life perspective that allows you to understand what you may be facing. The story will start with our recent losses to address a pre-teen's situation, and later I will talk about a pet loss we experienced when my son was in pre-school. I am also including a little background on each pet attachment, and how each dog died, to help you to understand how we face and experience different feelings, such as love, guilt, happiness, and sadness, and how they intermingle. I will also add psychological strategies and information, as I have a Masters in Psychology and experience in grief counseling.
Please remember, the loss of a pet is not only hard on your child; it will be hard on you in more than one way. You will not only feel your own grief for the loss of a beloved pet, but you will deeply feel the sadness of and for your child. Keep in mind, your story will be different based on your own experience in life. Only you know your child and what is best for your child.
Entering 2014, I thought it would be our best year yet; it is only March...and I was so wrong, at least for now. My son and I had 3 dogs at the beginning of 2014, today we have one dog. We experienced the sudden death of a dog in January, and another death [sudden but with 12 hours of preparation time] in March. The following is my experience and advice.
Pet Death and Young Children
When my son, Seth, was 3-years-old, we adopted a black lab that was about 1-year-old. He named her Sheba and she was such a great dog. At first he was scared of her because she was already close to full size lab [so big to him], but he got over that quickly. Seth used to drive around on his little motorized jeep and she would chase him wherever he went. He would sit on her, try to ride her, and cuddle with her, and she was happy no matter what he did. When Seth was 6, Sheba crawled under our fence because a scent was calling her. A raccoon had been hit and was lying in the middle of the 4 lane road we lived on. It happened in the morning hours, when traffic was bad. Someone hit her and left her to die right in front of our house. A good Samaritan saw what happened and took her to the vet. The vet called us and my son's father went to the vet to see her. Basically, her back was broken and nothing could be done for her and he had no choice but to put her to sleep, before Seth and I even woke up. When he came home, he informed me of Sheba's death. As Seth was very young at the time, we were careful in our choice of words, but honestly, we just told him the truth. There was no hiding what had happened. The biggest mistake I think we made was that we said she had to be 'put to sleep.' That phrase can come back on you, so I advise you not to use it. That phrase is what we use when we are going to bed [somewhat] and you don't want sleep to equal death and also the phrase is used prior to surgeries. You don't want a young child to equate being sedated for surgery with death. That will instill fear in them when you want them to believe all will be well!
Toto died in January 2014
Sudden Death of a Pet
Although both of our dog's deaths were technically sudden [completely unexpected], I denote this section as 'sudden' because my son had no time to prepare for the loss.
Toto was a Yorkie mix that I had rescued from a parking lot in July 2013. She was the sweetest little dog and absolutely loved my 12-year-old son like no other animal ever had before. She slept cuddled up next to him, jumped in the window when she heard his bus coming to drop him off in the afternoon, and jumped into his arms with joy when he walked through the door. My son loved this 'furbaby' like no other.
Toto got along with our other two dogs, Hunter and especially Snookums. I put them all out in the backyard one day to take a potty break [my son was at school]. I was not feeling well, so I was attempting to take a nap at the time. The dogs were barking and it became irritating, so I looked out to tell them to be quiet. My hound/lab mix, Hunter, was barking toward the woods, which is abnormal except when a killer bunny rabbit is about to attack, and my Welsh Corgi mix, Snookums, was staring at the ground. I told them to hush and closed the door, but then realized I hadn't seen Toto and something seemed weird. I opened the door back up and called for Toto. Suddenly, I see her head pop up from the ground, where my medium dog is staring and nudging. I called Toto again and realized she could not get up. I ran out to her and saw blood. She had a half-inch in diameter hole in her rib area. She had been hit by a hawk. I rushed her to the vet and they said her ribs were broken and her lung was punctured; she was in pain and there was nothing they could do. I had to put her to sleep. I agreed and stood holding her through the last moments of her beautiful life. I cried for her, told her I love her, told her Seth loves her and watched her as she crossed into Heaven. It was so hard. I think of Seth. How am I going to tell him? How am I going to help him through this? Do I pick him up from school early? Do I let him finish his day and tell him then? How do I tell him? Do I allow myself to cry in front of him or do I try to be strong? The answer is all of the above, depending completely on how you feel, how you and your child interact, or where your child's maturity level is.
The Difficult Question
Although none are preferable, which do you think would be easier on a child?
How to Face a Sudden Death
So what did I do? How did I handle this situation sensitively and in the best interest of my child...and yes, in a way that I could handle? These are questions you will have to think of too. Here is how I faced this sudden death myself and with my [12-year-old] son:
I got home around 11 a.m. I decided against picking Seth up from school that early because school is important. I went home and cried. I tried not to, but I kept picturing the whole event, the loss. I kept picturing every moment that she wanted to jump in my lap and I said no because I just wasn't in the mood. I pictured every time I fussed at her for an accident or because she made a mistake like tearing something up. I bring this up because you WILL think of these things. You WILL have regrets, and so will your child. I beat myself up for leaving her outside so I could take a nap. I felt awful for having to make the choice to put her to sleep. I pictured her eyes as they went still. I pictured my son's pain. Basically, I thought of everything to make myself cry for her, for myself, and for my son that I possibly could. I mourned the loss of my pet, my family member.
I picked my son up from school 20 minutes early so he would come home [he usually goes to a recreation center after school]. I had every intention to be strong and not cry when I picked him up. As he walked into the office and saw my face, tears fell from my eyes; he is my kryptonite. He asked me what was wrong then and all the way home, but I was trying to keep from crying and didn't want to tell him the news in the car, so I kept saying, "I will tell you when we get home." [This whole situation I think was a mistake, as I created anxiety in my son by my obvious sadness and lack of explanation]. I am not sure what I could have done differently, as I still would have been picking him up from somewhere and face the same car situation. I don't think revealing the sad news in a car when you cannot hold your child in his/her grief is an option.
When we got in the house, he immediately went to the room where Toto normally stays when we are gone and I realized he already 'felt' like he knew something happened to her. I told him that Toto had died and how she had died. I was honest. I do not believe in saying 'put to sleep' when explaining pet death to a child anymore. I used that phrase when telling my son of Sheba's death and then used the same term 'put me to sleep' when talking about a surgical procedure, which caused my son to panic [be careful of your choice of words, depending on age, understanding, and circumstance]. I believe children of a certain age can handle honesty; if he was younger, I would have used less detail. I felt my son was mature enough to know what happened and if I didn't reveal all, he would keep asking me for answers to make sense of the death. If your child is younger or with a younger maturity level, the amount of detail should be adjusted.
In the next section, I will provide you with information on being able to prepare for a family pet death. After that, I will talk about child reactions and coping with a pet's death.
Hunter died in March 2014
How to Prepare for a Pet Death
Hunter was my baby. We got him from a vet after he and his siblings had been dumped at the vet's door. We got him in 2007, a year after the loss of our first family dog 'Sheba.' I carried Hunter on my hip like a baby and loved him beyond words, despite my claim that I was not a dog person. Seth also really loved Hunter. They were buddies and competitors. I would blow giant bubbles in the backyard and Hunter loved them so much, he would knock Seth out of the way and fly up into the air to bite the bubbles. Hunter would attack [in a funny way] giant phone company cones, if I hit them and said, "Ow." The best is he would drag my son under the trampoline by his pants [sometimes until they came off] if I said, "Ow.' The kids would all ask me to say it just so he would chase them, in his fun and never harmful way.
It has been a week and a half now that Hunter has gone to rainbow bridge. Toto's loss is still fresh and painful, and then Hunter, our beautiful hound/lab mix dies unexpectedly. Inconceivable! Hunter was with us for almost 7 years. He protected us, he loved us, and we did the same for him...and now he is gone. So what happened to him?
The answer is...we don't know. One day I let Hunter and Snookums [Welsh-Corgi] out to go potty and enjoy the sun and around 7 p.m. I brought them in to eat. He seemed fine, he walked toward the cat's dishes and swept the kitchen for food on the floor like he always did. He entered the dining room and engulfed his food like he always did. About 30-45 minutes later, I was going to let them out to potty like usual. I noticed his ear flopped over and he wasn't shaking it off. Not normal. I fixed it for him, but didn't think anything was wrong. Then he started walking. He couldn't walk straight, his rear end was going the opposite direction than the rest of his body. His back was arched funny. He sat in front of me, wagging his tail, and his paws were weird, his claws seemed out further. He couldn't stay straight and seemed to be slipping on the floor. I grabbed Seth and we took Hunter to an emergency vet. They seemed unsure about him and wanted to keep him for tests, but said we could take him home and take him to our normal vet in the morning. So that's what we did. They gave him two shots before we left: a painkiller and something for neurological balance. He walked into the vet, but I had to carry him out [70 pounds]. He never walked again. When we woke in the morning, his breathing was fast, he was shaking, and he couldn't get on his feet.
To backtrack slightly, the night before, I had a talk with my son. I needed to know how he felt about the situation and what he wanted to do in case Hunter needed to be put to sleep. I stressed that I did not think that was the case [I didn't], but we needed to consider it in case. Seth told me that if I took him to the vet and he couldn't be helped, we should 'put him to sleep' so he does not suffer...but Seth didn't think he would want to be there [understandably].
The next morning, I had to make the choice to take my son to school late, as I couldn't lift my dog [in his state] alone. I went to the vet and got a stretcher and together we transported Hunter to the vet, not really thinking the worst. Unfortunately, it was the worst. He was having seizures and potential back, blood clot, neurological, and heart problems suspected. They said they couldn't even determine which one caused the other [which came first] and it would be a lot of tests with a lot of surgeries, but likely a poor outcome. My son and I went to another room and discussed the options through profound grief and tears. We decided to let Hunter go, sadly. Seth wanted to say good-bye to Hunter, but did not want to be in the room when Hunter was put to sleep. I was torn between being there for my son and being there for my Hunter, as I believe our dogs are there with us through life so we should be there at the end. My son wanted me to be there for Hunter, so he went to the other room. However, before Hunter was injected, Seth came back in. He had decided he wanted to be there for Hunter too. It ripped my heart out and made me so proud of my son at the same time. We put our arms around each other and our other arms around Hunter and together we gave him every bit of love we had. From there I will just say it was the three of us to the end.
Hunter 2007-March 2014
How will Your Young Child Respond to a Pet's Death
I honestly cannot tell you how YOUR child will respond, but I can tell you about our experience from when Seth was 6 and now, at age 12.
When Seth was 6 and Sheba was hit by a car, as I said, we were honest, but we simplified it for Seth. We did not speak of Sheba's specific injuries. We did tell him a nice man stopped for her and unfortunately he got that confused and assumed he hit her. He continued to place blame on that man, who we did not actually know, and we had to continuously re-explain. We did say she was 'put to sleep,' which made him consider there was a chance for her to wake up [negative complication]. We had to explain that she was not coming back and what that meant, which caused him to relive pain.
Because it has been 6 years, I cannot recall specifics of questions he asked then; however, I can tell you about his memorable reaction. He cried his heart out and did it for days. Each day brought fewer tears, but when he cried it was gut wrenching. Then it went to a couple of days a week, then a few a month. Even at age 11, he cried when he remembered. I am not saying often, but maybe once in a year when the memory hit. All you can really do is hold a child, make them feel loved, and let him/her know it is safe and really OK to cry. I did give Seth a framed picture of him and Sheba playing, that he still keeps in his room to this day. I think remembering is a good thing, whether it brings up feelings of happiness or sadness. It is healthy and it helps them to learn how to cope with future losses.
Older Child and Pet Loss
When both Toto and Hunter died this year, my 12-year-old cried so hard; it was just devastating. Toto was here for only a half year and Hunter was here for 7 years. We had no expectations of them dying and they were in good health. However, he did not cry as much as when he was 6. Once he stopped the initial crying, which took a good hour or two, he found ways to divert his attention such as playing video games, so his mind would not play it over and over in his head. He wasn't trying to not think about it but to stop the continuous crying. He did keep coming to me hourly, crying his heart out. An extra note: I am not a doctor so this is simply stating what I did and not necessarily what you should do, but I gave my son an ibuprofen at the realization of each loss because this kind of continuously hard crying typically causes headaches.
My son did ask questions such as "Why do bad things always happen to us?" and "Why would God let this happen when I prayed all night?" I won't give you my answers to these, but will leave the answers to your children's questions to you, as you know what is best for your child. I am just making you aware so you can expect such questions. He also expressed guilt for not playing with them every time they wanted to play or petting them every time they wanted love. I did explain that it is perfectly normal to have feelings such as these. I had those same feelings, as I previously mentioned. However, I explained that although we love our furbabies, it does not mean that we have to spend every second of our lives catering to them. It is natural for us to not want to pet them or have them sit in our laps at moments, just like it is natural for us to not feel like playing with our friends sometimes. This applies to all of us. We will feel guilty, but we need to give ourselves a break. We cannot be perfect for everyone and everything all of the time.
The last question he asked was "Why am I not crying more?" He expressed feeling guilty for not crying constantly. He did cry a lot, it just wasn't constant. It is just that as they get older, they are better able to moderate emotions and use distractions to help themselves get through. I explained that not crying as much as he thinks he should, or even maybe not crying when I am crying does not mean he didn't love Toto or Hunter, it is simply that he is using coping skills to get through his loss.
Choice of Emotion
Do you believe showing grief and/or crying in front of your child is appropriate?
As Adults, How do We React in Front of our Child?
The simple answer to this complicated question is to just be you and react in your way, but pay attention to your child's responses. And maybe like most things in life, moderation is key [at least in front of your child]. Let your child see how deeply you feel, see you mourn, see you cry, because you are your child's model. If you hide your tears, you will teach your child it is not ok to cry. If you hide your grief, you teach your child to hide his/hers. If this happens, and you teach your child to hide these things, your child might feel alone in pain, in grief, and then not be able to gain support from others now or in the future.
I cried with my son and alone. Sometimes, when he would come to me crying [speaking of him at age 12], if I started crying with him, he would stop crying so he could take care of me. As I said earlier, you have to pay attention to the child's responses and I did. Although it was endearing [and even needed] that he should want to take care of me, I felt he needed to get his crying out and express his sadness. After noting this, I started doing my best not to cry with him or for him when he CAME TO ME crying. And sometimes, I even spoke to him of special moments with his dogs to help him to cry when he was struggling to get his emotions out.
I mourned with my son and found positive ways to move forward. We sat and talked about happy/funny memories of our dogs, things that interrupted our grief with moments of laughter and smiles. After Hunter died, we were struggling with emotions, so we got our remaining dog and gave her a bath and special love to redirect our feelings. When Toto died, we found a picture of her on my phone and he made it the main background page on his computer [his idea] so he could say 'hi' to her every morning or talk to her when he wants...and he still does.
Through this, my son learned it was good to express his sadness over the losses and was comfortable telling and showing his sadness to his middle school friends. By doing this, he gained peer support and amazingly, his friends who knew our dogs went home and told their parents, who expressed their support to me. It was a positive cycle of support.
Summary of Strategies with a Child
- Be as honest as you can be [age/maturity appropriate]
- Watch the words you use
- Do something to help your child celebrate his/her pet
- Allow yourself to cry, be a good model
- Allow your child to cry/even encourage it
- Forgive yourself for any mistakes you make
- Watch your child for signs to moderate your emotions
- Listen to your child's expressions of grief and talk about yours
- Talk about positive memories
- Find positive outlets or distractions when child is in need
- Don't expect grief to be over within a time limit
- Let your child be there for you too, in moderation