Friday, July 20, 2012

Mourning The Death Of A Pet

As much as we sometimes wish it weren't, death is a part of life. One of these days, we'll all have to learn what it is like to have a loved one who is no longer with us. But what if that loved one is a pet? Is it any different from mourning the death of a person?

For some of us, the answer is no. Or, not quite. The reason for this is that many people consider their pets not as possessions, but as members of the family. This is especially common among children, some of whom may have had the pet their entire lives. How can we help our children mourn the death of a pet, and help ourselves as well? Here are a few ideas.

  • Naturally, you would adjust exactly what information you give based on the child's age and maturity level. It may be best to answer a young child's question directly without giving any more information than they ask for. In terms of older children, make sure they understand what death means and let them know that it is okay to cry or express their feelings. Expressing your own feelings is very helpful, along with making yourself available for any questions the child might have. Don't be afraid to say, 'I don't know'.
  • Be open and honest. Don't use euphemisms such as 'put to sleep' or 'went away'. Young children tend to take things literally, so hearing 'put to sleep' or 'went to sleep for a long time' may make them afraid to go to bed. If they hear, 'went away', they might get their hopes up that the pet will return. I remember my cousin would stand out by the mailbox and wait for the family's daschsund, Barney, to come home. When he was finally told that Barney wouldn't, he was heartbroken. It's a difficult situation for a parent because there isn't much of a way to avoid the child being sad, but it will be much better in the long run if they understand what death or dying means. You could say, 'his body just stopped working' if the pet died naturally or, if the death was caused by something like being hit by a car, you could say exactly what happened. “He was hurt so bad that his body stopped working'. If the pet is euthanized, you could explain that 'she was never going to get better' and/or that the pet was in a great deal of pain, so there was nothing else that could be done to help them. If your religion has teachings about an afterlife, mention those. 'She's in a better place now' to refer to a belief in heaven may be surprisingly comforting. If you get a new pet, let your child know that this isn't a replacement, but a new addition to the family.
  • Give them extra reassurance. When a child first learns about what death means (or even later, depending on the child), she might be afraid that the same thing would happen to you. You can explain that death is not 'catching', that it's not going to happen to you any time soon.
  • Let them know that there was nothing anyone could have done to cause or prevent the death. They might blame the veterinarian for 'not doing enough to help' the pet. If a young child ever thought bad thoughts about the pet-annoyance, frustration over having to care for it, not liking the pet at some point-, they may think that they are somehow at fault. Let them know that this is not the case. If the death was accidental-for instance, choking on something they ate or being hit by a car-, explain that sometimes things like this just 'happen'. Don't be afraid to admit that you don't know the reasons for this; most of us really don't. The point is not to assign blame.
  • Get the child involved. If you have a memorial service for the pet, encourage the child to speak. Drawing pictures or other things to memorialize the pet may help. If the pet is going to be euthanized, an older child might want to hold the pet or be there during the process. Either way, feeling that they did a part in honoring their pet is a good way for them to express their feelings in a positive way.

I hope I've given you a bit of help. I know that this is a difficult subject to discuss, but handling the issue directly is the best way to go.

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