Pet Loss: Sharing The Sad News with Grandchildren

Heartbreak is life educating us.  ~ George Bernard Shaw

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A reader writes: I very sadly had to euthanize my wonderful dog of 8 years last night. She has been with me with so many other losses and helped me through. Now here I am and at a loss without her. I am having a terrible time but am contacting you to help with my two grandchildren, who are ages 6 and 3. They live across the street and have grown up with our Great Dane Suzanna, and I am at a loss as to what to say to them that they will understand. They lost their pet turtle just last week and have been sad about that, and now their dog. I was wondering if you could recommend any age appropriate books that I could purchase.

My response: I’m so very sorry to learn of the death of your beloved Suzanna, and I can only imagine how difficult this must be for you and your family. Not only must you deal with your own grief at the loss of your precious companion, but with that of your dear little grandchildren as well.

I certainly understand and appreciate your wanting to share this sad news with your grandchildren in a helpful way. Since these children were especially attached to Suzanna and they’re also mourning the loss of their pet turtle last week, it’s understandable that you’re concerned about how they will react to this.

As I’m sure you know, a child’s concept of death varies with the cognitive and emotional development of the child. Grief is experienced and expressed in different ways at different developmental stages. Your 3-year-old will probably miss Suzanna as a playmate, but not as a love object. Children this age think of death as a temporary and reversible state, and have difficulty understanding that death is permanent. At age 6, though, your other grandchild is old enough to understand that Suzanna has died and will not return ~ but there is a magical quality to children’s thinking at this age (that is, that something they did, said or thought may have contributed to this death), so it’s important to reassure your little ones that this is not their fault. You might explain that, for a very large dog, Suzanna was very, very old and that when big dogs become very, very old like that, their body parts wear out and just stop working.

I don’t know what you did with Suzanna’s body after death, but you might consider making a scrapbook together, or having your grandchildren draw some pictures of Suzanna, or you could create a special place of remembrance that your grandchildren can go and visit, where they can remember Suzanna by saying a prayer or lighting a votive candle in your dog’s honor. When the weather cooperates, you might suggest planting a flower, a shrub or a memorial garden together, to remember Suzanna by.

It’s important that you encourage all your family members to talk about Suzanna, to recall what was special about your dog and what funny and silly things you all want to remember about your life together. All of these activities serve to demonstrate to your grandchildren that it is healthy and normal to mourn the loss of someone we loved very much, and that it is good to honor the memory of the one who died by creating loving rituals and memorials.

You asked about some of the many wonderful books written for children on the subject of pet loss; this is a very good way to open up a discussion with them about what they are feeling about all of this (e.g., The Tenth Good Thing About Barney by Judith Viorst — how a boy works through his grief by planning a memorial service for his cat and thinks of ten good things to say about Barney over his grave; or Jasper’s Day by Marjorie Blain Parker – how a family spends its last day with their beloved but terminally ill golden retriever by creating special memories that will last forever). One of my very favorites is Lifetimes: The Beautiful Way to Explain Death to Children by Bryan Mellonie and Robert Ingpen, which explains life and death in a very caring and sensitive way, and helps us remember and understand that dying is as much a part of living as being born.

I also invite you to read my articles, Helping Children Cope with Pet Euthanasia, Helping A Child with Pet Loss and Using Children's Books to Help with Grief.

If you haven’t already done so, I hope you’ll spend some time exploring my Grief Healing web site, which offers additional information, comfort and support. See especially my Articles ~ Columns ~ Books page. Once there, just scroll down until you come to the section labeled Books for Children and Those Who Love Them, where you’ll find links to several books I’ve read myself and personally recommend.

See also the articles written by others, which you will find listed on my Pet Loss Articles page. I’m also sure you’ll appreciate Poem For Max, which was written by a little girl in loving memory of her precious companion, and which appears on my Comfort for Grieving Animal Lovers page.

Yet another source of help is A Different Grief: Helping You and Your Children with Pet Loss, an on-line e-mail course I’ve written about the subject, including what you can do to help your grandchildren through this challenging life experience. See also my booklet, Children and Pet Loss: A Guide for Helping.

I hope this information proves useful to you, my dear. I believe that, difficult as it is, the death of a pet can be a wonderful opportunity to teach children about death as a natural part of living. How you teach this lesson to your grandchildren can have an enormously positive effect on them, and I wish you well in your effort. The very fact that you are seeking advice on how to help your grandchildren with this tells me that you are a wonderful grandmother. I wish love and blessings to all of you at this sad and difficult time.

Your feedback is welcome! Please feel free to leave a comment or a question, or share a tip, a related article or a resource of your own in the Comments section below.
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© by Marty Tousley, RN, MS, FT, DCC

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