Monday, October 1, 2018

Helping Young Children with Pet Loss

When a cherished pet dies, parents have a valuable opportunity to teach their children that although grief hurts, it's a fact of life, it's a part of being human, and it happens whenever we lose someone we love. 

A reader writes: Three months ago our beloved 17-year-old dog Lady passed away. Honestly we knew it was coming. We believe she caught a cold that turned to pneumonia and she could no longer fight it. As I sit here writing this I am crying because it is still painful to realize. My four-year-old daughter is still bringing it up a least three times a month if not more.
We have another dog named Princess and every so often my daughter puts her arm around her and asks her if she still misses Lady too. A couple of days after Lady's passing we had her cremated. We wouldn't allow my daughter out back when the men came to get her body. Before they took her I asked for her collar that I put around her neck just days after Lady's birth. When I came inside and she saw that I had Lady's collar she screamed that the angels won't know who Lady was without the collar, so I told her that the angels gave Lady a new PINK collar (my daughter's favorite color) when she went to live with them. My daughter asked if the man taking Lady was going to make her better and bring her back. I told her that Lady had to go live with the angels cause they were the only ones that could make Lady better. She asked when they make Lady better can she come back. It broke my heart when I had to tell her no, she has to stay there now. The reaction I got hurt more than losing my Lady. Right now I am hoping that there is some way of getting through to her without involving outside people -- just hopefully outside information to let her know that Lady will always be with her but not here, and that she isn't coming back.

My response: I'm so sorry to learn of the death of your beloved Lady, and I can certainly appreciate how difficult this was to explain to your four-year-old daughter. I hope that what I can offer will be of help to you.

First, I think your daughter's repeated questions stem from her need to make some sense of what has happened to her dog. You might consider that at such times, your daughter simply needs your time and attention, and she needs your encouragement to talk about her feelings whenever they come up. Be patient with her repetitious questioning ~ it represents her efforts to work through her grief and come to terms with her loss. When your daughter asks her questions, you needn't expect to have all the answers ~ sometimes there simply aren't any satisfactory answers ~ but it's still important to discuss the questions! Your daughter needs her parents to puzzle with her about such things.

When explaining death to children, it's important to be meticulously honest, even as we take into account their age, developmental level and capacity to understand what we are telling them. As you have discovered, when we make up stories in an effort to protect them from the reality of death, or to soften the blow, or because we simply don't know what else to say, it can be very confusing to little ones. I don't know your daughter, but typically pre-school children (between the ages of two and five) perceive of death as a temporary and reversible state. They have trouble understanding that death is permanent and happens to all living things. Think about how death is portrayed in fairy tales: Snow White and Sleeping Beauty come back to life when the Prince kisses them, for example.

So when we're telling a child that her dog has died, we need to explain in very concrete terms what "dead" means: "Lady's heart stopped beating and she doesn't breathe in and out anymore. She doesn't need to eat or go to the bathroom. She cannot see, hear, or move, and she cannot feel pain. Being dead is not the same as sleeping. All your body parts work when you are sleeping. When an animal dies, her body has stopped working. The part of Lady that was alive is gone. All that's left is her body -- like an egg shell without the egg." 

Since Lady was cremated, you can say something like this: "After she died, Lady's body was cremated. There is a special place called a crematorium. In this building is a room with a special fire -- not like any room in our house, and not like the fire in our fireplace. Because Lady was dead, she did not feel anything at all during cremation. A body without life cannot feel heat or pain. This special fire is very, very hot ~ hot enough to melt the body and turn it into a very fine, very soft ash. What is left of a dead body is called cremains." [At this point, I don't know what you did with Lady's cremains, but if the after-death pet care service took care of the disposal, you might say something like this: "The cremains were then scattered in a special place and returned to the earth."] You can then go on to explain (according to your own belief system) what you think has happened to Lady's spirit. Your angel story is fine, except for the part about making Lady better. Because of the magical thinking typical of this age, your little girl is probably saying to herself: If the angels can make her better, then they can send her back to us. This explanation has likely led her to continue holding out hope for Lady's return.

There is a vast array of articles and children's books that can help you explain to your daughter what happens when we die, or when our animals die ~ you just need to be sure the content of the book fits with your own belief system. And if you're not so sure yourself, you can always say to a child, "I'm not sure what happens to us when we die, but here is what I've been taught," or "Here is what I'd like to believe," or "This is what I think," etc. And you can also invite your daughter to tell you what she thinks.

To find the books I've read and personally recommend, see Using Children's Books to Help with Grief. See also the lovely poem, The Rainbow Bridge. And read some of the articles I have listed on my Pet Loss Articles page, too.

I hope this information proves helpful to you, my dear. You sound like a very loving and concerned mom, and I appreciate your seeking guidance on this important issue. I wish you all the best, and I hope that when the timing is right, you will let me know how you and your daughter are doing. Meanwhile I am holding both of you in my heart.

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