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Contrary to what some people believe, the death of a family pet is a significant event, and often it is the child's first real encounter with a major loss. Suddenly all that friendship, companionship, loyalty, support and unconditional love are replaced with overwhelming and unfamiliar feelings of loss, confusion, emptiness, fear and grief. Far from being a so-called dress rehearsal for the real thing, for most children pet loss is a profoundly painful experience. The following case offers one example.
After just five short months of love and life, Chuck the Guinea pig died shortly after 13-year old Bobby accidentally stepped on him while he and his younger brother Joe were playing in their room. Chuck had belonged to Joe, who adored him and even referred to him as his “son.” Of course it was a horrible accident, as Bobby loved Chuck almost as much as Joe did. The accident caused internal bleeding; the little fellow’s lungs were full of blood, his legs were neurologically damaged and he was unable to walk. It was a heart-wrenching decision to have Chuck euthanized, but there was really no other choice to be made. Bobby’s mother described her son as completely distraught, blaming himself, wanting to die, saying how stupid and careless he was, that he doesn’t deserve to live, doesn’t want to live, and will never forgive himself. If all this weren't bad enough, the mother said, her husband was completely unsympathetic – he didn't even want her to take Chuck to the vet in the first place, saying “It's just a rodent, for crying out loud! Why waste our money?”
The mother writes, The absolute hardest thing here is Bobby's guilt. What can I do to comfort him? How can I make this better for him? He is sadder then I have ever seen him before in his entire life. I am seriously afraid he is going to hurt himself. I have explained repeatedly that he didn't kill Chuck, it was just a terrible accident and these things happen. He is full of self- loathing and hurt, calling himself a killer and a worthless being . . . Thank God for my sister and her boyfriend, who were with us at the vet, helped us bury Chuck in their yard and even took the boys to buy a new Guinea pig, so our remaining pig Sammy would not be alone.
As this mother accurately observes, this tragedy is compounded by the guilt that her son Bobby feels over the circumstances of Chuck's death, and by her husband's apparent lack of empathy.
Unfortunately, her husband's reaction is not unusual.
When a child's pet dies, there is a tendency to minimize both the loss and the child's grief, especially if the pet was very small, such as a goldfish, or a pocket pet like a hamster or a gerbil, or in this case, a Guinea pig. But no matter what the type of animal, a child's attachment to a pet is genuine and real. As a playmate, confidante and ally, a pet is one of the most steady, accepting, non-demanding, non-judgmental figures in a child's life.
In my response I suggested that, when the timing was right, this mother explain to her husband that it is not simply the type of pet, but the depth of the attachment their sons had to Chuck that determines the measure of the grief they feel at losing him. Certainly children grieve as deeply as adults, but they express their grief differently. Their attention span is shorter than ours, so they tend to move in and out of grief, and the symptoms of grief may come and go, varying in intensity. Since they've had less experience with crisis, they have fewer coping skills as well as a more limited capacity to confront the reality of their loss and to find meaning in it. Having fewer language skills, they tend to express their feelings by acting them out rather than talking about them.
I told this mother that she knows her children better than anyone else does, and that she would be wise to watch closely and listen carefully to what her boys are saying and doing. If she is unsure of what's going on with them, what they are thinking and feeling about all this, it's important that she ask. Until they talk about this with one another, her boys may not even know what they are feeling, in which case it's helpful for her to name what they may be feeling (lonely, angry, sad, confused, hurt).
One excellent way to open up the subject is to find and read together one or more of the outstanding books about children and pet loss (for example, Judith Viorst's classic The Tenth Good Thing about Barney, in which a boy works through his grief by planning a memorial service for his cat and, at his mother's suggestion, thinking of ten good things to say about Barney over his grave). This mother could model reminiscing and talking openly about how much Chuck meant to the entire family, which gives her sons permission to feel, show and express their own pain. Even though she and her husband may not have been as attached to this pet as their sons were, they can still put themselves in their sons’ place and understand the significance of their loss. If the mother was just as attached as her sons were, letting her sons see her express her own sadness teaches them that it is okay, healthy and normal to feel sorrow at the death of someone we love. As the mother does in the Barney story, this mother can explore with her sons all the ways they can memorialize Chuck (such as planting a shrub or tree in his honor, drawing a picture of him, or putting an album or scrapbook together).
That this mother’s sister felt a need to take her nephews to get another Guinea pig is understandable, especially since it meant the remaining Sammy wouldn't be alone. But getting another Guinea pig so quickly after this one died may also be this aunt’s effort to "undo" or to minimize the pain her nephews are feeling at losing Chuck. In the normal course of grieving, the time usually comes when we feel ready to attach to another companion animal. Nevertheless, it usually is a mistake to rush to do so in an effort to replace the pet who was lost. These boys need time to finish with this pet, and then only with the understanding that there is no way to replace the loved one who died. Getting a new pet before the grieving process is completed may suggest to children that the one who died was insignificant and disposable, and may deprive the family of finding meaning in the whole event. Since a new animal has already been welcomed into this home, however, I encouraged this mother to make sure her boys know that it needs and deserves to be loved for itself as a distinct and separate individual, and not as a replacement for the one who died. If either of the boys seems reluctant to care for or relate to the new pet, I suggested that she be patient and help him express and understand what he may be feeling.
While Bobby is feeling very guilty about what happened to Chuck, it’s important for this mother to keep in mind that his reaction is quite appropriate under the circumstances and is, after all, an indication that he is a good and decent young person who cares very deeply about this little creature who died. I told her that what she is already doing sounded fine to me: reassuring him that whatever happened was not intentional on his part, that it was a tragic accident, that accidents do happen, that when we make a mistake like this it's important that we learn from it so we don't repeat it. I urged this mother to allow her boy some time to experience, express and work through the guilt that he is feeling, to know that any good and decent human being would feel the same way he does under the circumstances, and to have faith that with her help, reassurance and understanding, he will get through this difficult life experience.
When a tragedy like this happens in a family, we are wise to recognize that how we handle children's feelings and questions and what children observe in the actions of adults around them is what prepares them to face and deal effectively with life's many losses and disappointments in the future. What both these boys need from their mother is accurate information, a chance to ask questions and express their feelings, and consistent and loving attention from their mom and dad. I also told this mother that the fact that she wrote to me seeking my advice tells me that she is a concerned and caring mother, and I felt certain that she already was doing just fine with all of this.
This mother later wrote to tell me that the family was doing fine: after she had a talk with him, she said, her husband is showing much more empathy toward the boys. The new Guinea pig is adjusting well and Sammy is grateful for the company: "The boys are beginning to heal, but I know it will take a lot of time, patience and love. Someone suggested to me to contact the Humane society and donate Guinea pig food in Chuck's name, and I like your idea of planting a tree or shrub in his honor as well – and the boys and I are working on building an online memorial for Chuck."
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