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Parenting Advice: How to Help Children Deal with the Loss of a Pet
The loss of a pet
When I was eight years old I had a kitten. She wasn’t in my life very long but I loved that little cat. She was, like most kittens, a wide eyed playful little buddy that I took with me everywhere I went inside our house. That kitten was my kitten. I fed it, I played with it, I cuddled with it, and I told it several times a day that I loved it. We had had other cats before and we already had a dog at the time I got little Jules but for some reason my attachment to this affectionate little feline was particularly strong. The sound of her purring gave me comfort and let me know that in that moment everything in my world was OK. I had developed a special bond with her and I felt responsible for her well being. For some reason this little kitty had touched my heart in a way no other pet ever had.
One day when I came home from school my mother told me something had happened to Jules. I could tell right away it wasn’t good. I immediately went to Jules’ bed and she was curled up like she was sleeping but I knew. I knew right away and I started to cry instantly. I can even remember being almost outside of myself and watching myself cry, and I was thinking, why are you crying so much? Jules has only been here for a few weeks. I really remember have these thoughts. I was grieving the loss of my kitten but a part of me knew I must have also been crying about something else.
I remember my father coming home from work and my mother telling him what had happened. At first he tried to cheer me up and tell me it was ok. And then he said it, those words no grieving child wants to hear when their pets dies, don’t worry we’ll get you a new...get me a new Jules? Are you kidding me? I didn’t want to replace her I wanted to get her back. Would someone say to you after a parent dies, don’t worry we’ll get you a new Dad? Or after your best friend dies don’t worry we’ll get you a new friend? Of course we don’t want to get a new anything. We are in mourning for the loss of that specific person and for kids they are mourning the loss of that specific pet that they have become so attached to.
Parenting advice for helping kids deal with the loss of a pet
The best parenting advice we can give in situations where a beloved pet dies is to respect our child’s feelings. We may feel the need to cheer them up because it’s hard to see our kids in emotional pain. We want our children to be able to recognize their own feelings and not doubt themselves because we tell them they should only feel a certain way. The more we tell them to feel one way when they are feeling another, the more confused and alone they feel. It’s best to let them work through their own feelings.
However, as parents, we also need to see the big picture and recognize that our kids at some point will need to learn about the cycle of life and the fact that all creatures have a beginning and an end. I know when I lost Jules, I was crying not just because I lost my playful little friend, I was also mourning because I recognized that the people I love in my life will also one day pass away and even I would someday have to pass as well. I was crying because I had a sudden and very stark insight into my own mortality and the mortality of my parents.
More parenting advice
Another piece of advice for parents who have a child who is suffering because a pet dies is to let them lead. Let them decide what they want to do if they are old enough. If they are unsure maybe suggest some type of memorial or ritual to mark the passing of their much loved companion. I decided to bury Jules myself. We had a private little memorial with me, my brother, and my sister in attendance. I know they didn’t understand why I was so upset but they were there for me and that helped as we quietly buried her.
Everyone grieves differently. Some take longer than others. Some are more demonstrative than others, some go through a lot of different responses such as denial, anger, and sadness. The best parenting advice would be that as parents we need to be there for our children and let them work through their process. We don’t need to try to fix it right away. If your child eventually wants a new pet they will let you know when it is time. Some kids will hint by talking about pets again and others will just ask to get another pet. Don’t let the fact they were already hit hard by the loss of a pet prevent you from getting them another pet. They will hopefully have learned a little something about coping with loss and having pets die is one of the ways children learn about death and dying in a natural way.
The loss of a pet: Coming to grips with mortality
I know the parenting advice my parents, their friends, and many other people from their generation would have given each other. It would have been something along the lines of tell him to get over it, all pets have to die at some point. In a way that is true but good advice for parents today should be a little less harsh.
Still, we can use an event like the loss of a pet to help teach our children learn how to deal with death and dying. We can explain how all living creatures are born and eventually die. We can also allay some of their fears by letting them know that people aren’t like most animals because we usually live very long before it’s our time to go. Let them know that it is natural to cry and feel sad when we lose something that is so important to us.
We can also let them know that one of the best ways to honor a loved one who has passed away is to remember all the great things they brought us while they were with us. By being thankful and remembering the joy they brought us we can keep them with us forever in our hearts. In the process of helping children learn to mourn the loss of a pet, the experience will hopefully in some way teach them to better deal with their own mortality and the mortality of the people they love.