Monday, August 14, 2017

Children and Pet Loss: Following Their Lead

[Reviewed and updated March 19, 2020]

The moment I decided to follow instead of lead, I discovered the joys of becoming a part of a small child's world.  ~ Janet Gonzalez-Mena

A reader writes: I wrote to you earlier about the death of our dog -- our wonderful and loving companion of 15 years -- as we needed some poetry and appropriate messages to read at the Memorial Service we were planning when we buried her remains in our yard. You were kind enough to refer us to your Comfort for Grieving Animal Lovers page, and I thank you so much for your words of comfort. I also took the time to read the articles you suggested, which soothed my sad and heavy heart.

I wrote to you again when I needed to tell my 5-year-old granddaughter what happened to Samantha. She knew our dog was old and tired, but she wasn't around when Samantha was euthanized.

Based on your recommendation, I purchased the book The Tenth Good Thing About Barney [by Judith Viorst, about a boy who works through his grief by planning a memorial service for his cat and thinking of ten good things to say about Barney over his grave]. When I attempted to read it to my granddaughter, I only got through the first four lines when she started to sob and asked me to stop reading it. She said it made her feel too sad and that she really missed Samantha -- and she kept crying. Other than that, she doesn't talk about our dog Samantha at all, so should I just "drop" the subject?

My response: As a matter of fact, the very same thing happened to me when I expressed sympathy to my then four-year-old granddaughter upon learning that her beloved goldfish had died. I told her how very sorry I was about her fish, and she began to cry. Then she sniffed, "I don't want to talk about it." So I simply gave her a warm hug and told her that was okay. I told her I knew that she was very sad because she loved her goldfish and she would miss him a lot.

I think with children this age you need to follow their lead: The most important thing is to let them know that you are there for them, if and when they DO feel a need to talk about it. Children tend to move in and out of grief -- one minute they're sad and crying and the next they're outside playing with their friends, as if they didn't have a care in the world.

The fact that you offered to read the book conveyed to your granddaughter that you are willing and able to talk about Samantha. The next time you are with her, you might say something like this: "Boy, I sure am missing Samantha today. Do you remember the time that she . . ." and share a warm memory with your granddaughter. The idea is to model for her that you loved this dog dearly, that you still miss her terribly, and that even though Samantha has died, your love for her will always be right there in your heart -- and that it's okay for both of you to feel and share with each other your feelings about all of this.

It sounds to me as if you're doing well with your granddaughter, my dear  As long as you're coming from a place of honesty and love, you're doing just fine. And I hope your own broken heart is beginning to heal -- as I carry both of you in my thoughts. 

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© by Marty Tousley, RN, MS, FT, BC-TMH

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