Monday, June 16, 2014

Pet Loss: Guilt in The Wake of A Kitten's Accidental Death

[Reviewed and updated August 14, 2022]

To live in this world
you must be able
to do three things:
to love what is mortal;
to hold it
against your bones knowing
your own life depends on it;
and, when the time comes to let it go,
to let it go. ~ Mary Oliver

A reader writes: I received a phone call last night from my frantic wife with my 13-year-old son screaming and crying in the background. He put the recliner chair down and it crushed his 12-week-old kitten.
She died on the way to the vet’s . . . I am surprised at my own mourning because she attached herself to me quite a bit, napping in my arm or on my chest a lot. She could make us smile no matter what was going on, no matter how bad it was. She is clearly already missed. My older son (15) came home, hugged his little brother and cried with him. My wife and I are sick and worried about our son. I told him I loved him and that accidents happen. What can I do for my son in this? He’s in school today but doesn’t want to be. He is being very hard on himself. My wife and he are traumatized by the ugliness (blood, deformation, seizure) that went along with this, including the necessity to keep our son outside while his clothes and the floor were cleaned up. He is quite emotional anyway and I do not want him to continue on like this. I want to get another kitten, perhaps in a few months. Advice is welcome.

My response: I’m so sorry to learn of the accidental death of your son’s kitten, and certainly this tragedy is compounded by the awful circumstances surrounding her death.

Unfortunately, when a child’s pet dies, there is all too often a tendency to minimize both the loss and the child’s grief, especially if the pet was very small, like a Guinea pig or a goldfish – and I am gratified to see that you’re not doing that with your sons. 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. It is not simply the type of pet, but the depth of the attachment each of your sons had to this kitten that determines the measure of the grief they feel at losing her.

Certainly youngsters grieve as deeply as adults, but as I mentioned in an earlier article, they express their grief differently.

You know both your sons better than anyone else does. You would be wise to watch closely and listen carefully to what they are saying and doing. If you are unsure of what’s going on with them, what they are thinking and feeling about all this, it’s important that you ask. Until you talk about this with one another, your boys may not even know what they are feeling, in which case it’s helpful for you to name what they may be feeling (lonely, angry, guilty, 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 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).

You can model reminiscing and talking openly about how much this kitten meant to the entire family. This gives both your sons permission to feel, show and express their own pain. Even if you and your wife weren’t as attached to this kitten as your sons were, you can still put yourselves in their place and understand the significance of their loss. If you were just as attached as they were, letting your sons see you express your own sadness teaches them that it is okay, healthy and normal to feel sorrow at the death of someone we love. Like the mother does in the Barney story, you can explore with your sons all the ways they can memorialize this kitten (such as planting a shrub or tree in her honor, drawing a picture of her, or putting an album or scrapbook together).

I understand your wanting to get another kitten for your son in a few months, but be careful about the timing. As a good dad, part of you may be wanting desperately to “undo” the horrible memory of the manner in which she died or to minimize the pain your sons are feeling at losing this kitten. 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 for parents to rush to do so in an effort to diminish the grief that is felt in the household. Your boys need time to finish with this kitten, 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 your family of finding meaning in the whole event. When you do decide to welcome a new animal into your home, make sure your 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 one of your boys seems reluctant to care for or relate to the new pet, be patient and help him express and understand what he may be feeling.

You say that your younger son is being very hard on himself, and I would expect that he may be feeling very guilty about what happened to his kitten. If that is the case, then I would consider his reaction to be quite appropriate under the circumstances. It is, after all, an indication that he is a good and decent young man who cares very deeply about this little creature who died. What you are already doing sounds 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, etc. Allow your son time to experience, express and work through the guilt that he is feeling, know that any good and decent human being would feel the same way he does under the circumstances, and have faith that with your help, reassurance and understanding, he will get through this difficult life experience. Make sure that you let his teachers at school know what has happened, and seek their help in keeping a watchful eye on your son.

If you haven’t already done so, I encourage you to visit and explore my Grief Healing Web site, where you will find a wealth of information, comfort and support. See especially the excellent articles and resources I’ve listed on my site’s Children and Pet Loss page, as well as my Child, Adolescent Grief page.

As I’m sure you already know, 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 your sons need from you and your wife is accurate information, a chance to ask questions and express their feelings, and consistent and loving attention from both of you. Based on what you’ve told me in your letter, I have a feeling that you’re already doing just fine with all of this.

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