I have owned only two Samoyed dogs in my life and raised from pups, and I have to say it was one of the most rewarding decisions we made in bringing them into our family. In the same breath, dealing with the passing of those dogs, especially with children in our family, was one of the most heartbreaking experiences of our lives.
As a clinical psychologist, I often deal with many types of grief. However, it is especially difficult when discussing the grief of a pet because often times the loss isn’t taken as seriously as a person in our family or friendship circle.
Whether it is a dog, cat, hamster, turtle, or even a hermit crab, they all become family members of some sort, especially to our children. When pets die there is a sadness that is normal in grief, but sometimes we have to watch out for signs that extreme grief may lead to anxiety problems and depression in adults, adolescents, and in our children.
The pain and loss will be felt differently across siblings, parents and any other members of the family, including other pets. While we all respond to loss differently, the level of pain will depend on factors such as age, personality, the age of your pet, and the circumstances surrounding the death.
While experiencing loss is an inevitable part of pet ownership, there are healthy ways to cope with the pain and come to terms with your grief.
So, what do we tell the kids?
Honesty is usually the best policy. We tend to be of a culture that is very uncomfortable with death. But this makes for a good time to teach about death and dying, the cycle of life and death, and it is an important concept to get across.
First, it is important to be able to be yourself. As parents, if we are crying or need to cry, it is okay to show those emotions amongst your family. It allows them to realize that they, too, can cry and be sad and feel the hurt. It is also important to “not let anyone tell you how to feel” and to acknowledge your grief. Allow for some time to be sad and cry, but also allow time to be able to talk about your pet. Most families use the “stiff-upper-lip” approach because we aren’t comfortable, but really talking about our pets and fond memories with our pets can help the healing process.
Speaking with other family members who have lost pets can also help with the healing process. Listening to loved ones and peers who can share their experiences will assist with our grief.
Creating a ritual can also help with healing, such as having the kids and family do a scrapbook, create a eulogy and ceremony for the pet, write a story or poem, create a rock garden in the yard where the family can bury your pet or plant a memorial tree.
Do something that is special to your family and your pet. For instance, in our family we would take our dog camping to our favorite lake in the Adirondacks. We would canoe to the campsite and the dogs would just love it there. After our pets passed, we had them cremated and did a special ceremony at our campsite. We paddled out in the canoes and spread the ashes in the lake in their favorite spot. Then we shared our favorite memories and stories with that particular dog. It was a great event for not only the kids, but also the adults to finally put to rest our beloved animal and move forward with our healing.
Keepsakes are also a good way to honor our pets and work through grief. Our teenage daughter asked permission to purchase a small charm necklace with our pet’s name on it within a paw print. She wears it every day. Children may want to take an old pet toy or object into their room or bed for comfort; let them as long as it is safe to do so.
Our surviving pets can suffer as well. Pets have been known to have difficulty with the transition and loss and they will need extra love and attention from us as well.
How do you know if your children are okay?
Parents and other family members can look for signs that things “are off.” There is no specific time frame for an individual to grieve, but healthy grieving is different from falling into a depression. When we disrupt our daily routines and withdraw from things we used to enjoy that may be a sign that something is wrong. A significant change in appetite, weight gain or loss, a disruption in school, and an academic decline are all warning signs that someone may be suffering from depression.
It’s normal for people to ask questions about where the animal is now, whether it’s heaven or in a different place, but it can also lead to chronic worry, fears and anxiety.
Family members may be afraid to go to sleep (especially if they overheard a conversation regarding ‘putting the pet to sleep’) and may need more attention at night. If your pet was sick and you discussed it with them, children now may be afraid to get sick, associating sickness with death. Open communication and conversations about illness and a pet’s old age may be an important part the healing process so that they can understand the differences. Don’t be fearful about fielding questions about aging, death and mortality. Kids will only process what they need to process and usually they let go of whatever they don’t really understand or don’t want to understand.
Many parents wonder if they should replace the pet immediately so that the children either don’t realize their pet is gone or don’t have to grieve. It is my professional opinion that we should all grieve for a certain time before replacing any pet. Each pet should be “its own special individual” and not just an extension of the last one.
If you think your child is having symptoms of anxiety or depressed mood, you can seek professional help. Most of us will naturally grieve in our own way, especially if families take the time to talk about the grief, the loss, the great times and the love that these pets have given to our families.
Recommended reading for children:
Lawrence Robinson, Jeanne Segal, Ph.D., and Robert Segal, M.A. (2019, June). Coping with Losing a Pet. retrieved from www.helpguide.org