Losing a pet is often a child’s first experience with death. And the loss hurts everyone in the family. Here are tips to help you grieve for a recent loss or to get you thinking about how to cope when the inevitable time comes.
by Ryan Van Cleave
It's the sort of thing non-pet owners can't appreciate, but losing a pet can feel like losing a family member. It's a terrible, aching blow that we know is coming, but we're just never quite prepared for.
Many Americans face this loss. Thirty-three percent of American families own a dog. Thirty-nine percent own a cat. Even those who've lost a gerbil, garter snake, or parakeet might feel equally distraught when their pet dies.
Yet, the reality is that there seems to be no socially acceptable way to mourn the loss of a pet. So what are parents, children, and teens to do?
Repression of grief is not healthy. In Pet Loss: A Thoughtful Guide for Adults and Children, authors Herbert A. Nieburg, Ph.D., and Arlene Fischer suggest that repressed grief often later re-emerges with a future loss. What results is the pain of both losses coming at once—a double whammy. No one wants that!
The key is to allow and even encourage a healthy response to a pet's death from every member of a family. Here are five ideas that might help that happen.
1. Do allow the time for tears. Crying shouldn't be a shameful thing in any family.
2. Do offer clear, understandable explanations to children that you are comfortable providing. Some things we simply don't have control over—that's a fact there's no getting around. Losing a beloved pet is often the first experience a child has with death. Having a pet means that this is a conversation you'll have to have with kids.
3. Do share memories of good times with your pet. Revisiting favorite sites or talking about events can help with the mourning process.
4. Do consider changing your schedule if regular feeding or walk times are painful for you.
5. Do understand that people's emotional responses to loss differ greatly. Some might seem to move past the pet's passing fairly quickly, while others might take weeks or months to come to terms with it. Grief has no firm time limit.
While each loss is its own unique situation, here are some common things to avoid in most cases.
1. Don't come up with a story for children such as "The pet went to sleep" (which can lead toward sleep fears) or "The pet ran away" (which can foster rejection or abandonment issues).
2. Don't take it personally when non-pet owners (and even some pet owners) don't appreciate the pain and loss you feel.
3. Don't let guilt consume you. Some pet owners beat themselves up for weeks, saying, "I should've taken her to the vet a week sooner!" or "Why didn't I spend more time walking her?" A little guilt is natural. A lot of guilt can be destructive.
4. Don't wait until your pet dies to make plans about the proper disposal of the pet's body. Get a plot in a pet cemetery, find out about cremation services, and perhaps plan a memorial service well in advance. Not having a set plan in place often leads to hasty and regretted decisions when the time comes.
5. Don't get another "replacement" pet too soon. It's not disloyal to get a new pet, but make sure you're clear about your commitment to this new family member, and give yourself time to adjust if this is a choice you make.
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The father of two who often writes on parenting children, Ryan G. Van Cleave teaches writing and literature at the Ringling College of Art & Design. In his memoir, Unplugged, he tells about the loss of four dogs of his own during the past few years.