Monday, September 30, 2013

Death of a Pet: Breaking the Sad News

[Reviewed and updated February 4, 2023]

Bad news isn't wine. It doesn't improve with age.  ~ Colin Powell

A reader writes: Our beloved Scottie dog, Bailey, died earlier this week, at the age of 15. We gave Bailey to our son Nicholas on his first day of Kindergarten. He will be returning home from college for a visit tomorrow. My husband and I are not really sure how to handle breaking the news to him.

My response: I'm so very sorry to learn of the death of your beloved Scottie, Bailey, this past Tuesday, and I can only imagine how difficult this must be for you and your husband. Not only must you deal with your own grief at the loss of your precious companion, but with your son’s grief as well. I certainly understand and appreciate your wanting to share this sad news with your son in a helpful way. Since Bailey was your son's dog and has been a part of your family for most of your son's life, it's understandable that you are concerned about how he will react.

The very fact that you are writing to me, asking for advice on how to break this sad news to your son, tells me that you are a very conscientious and loving mom who already knows intuitively how best to handle this -- but because you cared enough to ask, I will share with you what I think.

As I'm sure you already know, how deeply your son will be affected by this loss depends upon the strength of his attachment to Bailey, his past experience with death, Nicholas’s personality, age and level of maturity, and your particular family's way of doing things. Like any other family, you have your own unique traditions, spiritual beliefs and past experiences with death, all of which must be taken into account as you move together through this important life event.

I don't know if your son will be coming directly to your home tomorrow upon his return from college, but it's important that you get to him quickly, before friends and other relatives can, so that you can explain in your own way what has happened. The best advice I can give you is to be meticulously honest with him about the details of Bailey's death. Tell him exactly what happened to Bailey and when. I don't know how your son will react—you know him better than I do—but initially he may be stunned, unable to do anything but cry. He may not be interested in a detailed explanation right away, but if you leave the door open, he'll feel free to ask for details when he's ready. Remember that we human beings seek out only the information we need at a given time.

Keep in mind that guilt and anger are two of the most common reactions in loss: We may feel guilty for what we did or failed to do, and we may be angry about the injustice of it all. In this case, I think it's reasonable to expect that your son may be angry over your not telling him about Bailey's dying right away, so be prepared to explain why you thought it best to withhold the information from your son until now, and permit him to be angry about it. Bear in mind that probably what he's really angry about is that his dog has died, and he was not there when it happened. He may feel guilty, too, that he didn't have the opportunity to say goodbye. Feelings such as these are neither right nor wrong, good nor bad - they just are—and feelings that are acknowledged and expressed openly (without judgment or reproach) can be discussed, dealt with and released. It's when feelings are stuffed or criticized or ignored that we get into trouble.

I don't know what you decided to do with Bailey's remains, but be prepared to tell your son about that, too, and try to involve him as much as possible in whatever you've already done or plan to do. If you had Bailey's body cremated, you might decide together what you will do with his cremains (scatter them; bury them in the backyard; keep them in an urn; etc.). Plan a memorial ritual, and decide together how you'll honor Bailey's life and keep his memory alive. Encourage activities to help your son experience and express his love and his grief (e.g., compiling an album, scrapbook or memory box; viewing videos or home movies; writing or sharing memories; planting a shrub or tree; reading books on pet loss). Respect and encourage your son's needs to express and share feelings of sadness. When you bring up the subject of Bailey's death, you're showing your own willingness to talk about it. Let him see you upset and crying, too, which implies that it's all right to cry for those we love and lose.

You don't say how you yourself are doing with all of this, my friend. If you haven't already done so, I hope you'll spend some time learning about pet loss. Learning what is normal in response to losing a beloved pet can be very helpful, because you will discover that you are not "crazy" or eccentric for feeling the way you do, you'll learn what to expect in the weeks and months ahead, and you'll discover many useful ways that you can manage your own reactions. I'd especially recommend that you read the article entitled Grief And The Burden Of Guilt, as I think it addresses a lot of what you are experiencing now.

I hope this information proves helpful to you, my dear. Please know that I am thinking of you and your family, and holding you in my heart. ♥

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