Monday, April 17, 2023

Children, Pet Loss and The Power of Story

The one best place to bury a dog is in the heart of its master. ~ Ben Hur Lampman

Death of a pet may be a young family’s first encounter with significant loss, and one of the questions parents will face is how to explain it to their children. Depending upon their age, personality and level of development at the time, children may have a tough time understanding death and the grief that accompanies significant loss, and parents may be at a loss as to how to explain it to them.

In an earlier post I shared my belief that one of the most effective ways to help children understand such complicated matters is to tell them a story, or read together one of the many wonderful children’s books available on this topic. (Some of my personal favorites are listed on Amazon, under the category, books, children and pet loss. You can check with your local library, your neighborhood bookstore or online for any of these titles, but I encourage you to read Amazon’s description and reviews before making your selection. Make sure that the book’s content is consistent with your own personal values and beliefs, and that it matches your children’s experience.)

During one of the pet loss support groups I facilitated, a young mother shared that her six-year old son was really missing their beloved cocker spaniel Suzie, who had died the week before and was now buried in the family’s back yard. The boy asked his mom if he could dig up his dog so he could give Suzie a hug. The mother was perplexed, and needed a way to explain to her son that only Suzie’s body was in her grave, and that only the physical part of his relationship with Suzie was lost when Suzie died. The spiritual part of Suzie, and the family’s memories of all their happy times with her, would be alive forever. Complicated stuff ~ and how could she explain all of this to a six-year old?

The following is the story I suggested for this boy’s mother to share with her son. It is based on another I found years ago in Bereavement Magazine (“Throwing Away the Wrapper” by Bob Willis, January/February 1998, p. 29):

A mother was trying to explain to her young son Charley what had happened to his beloved dog Buffy after she died. As he was getting ready for bed one night, the boy asked his mother, “Where is Buffy now?” When she explained to him that his dog had died, the boy asked again, “But where is Buffy now?” Suddenly aware of how helpless she felt to explain, the mother answered, “Buffy is in Heaven.”

With this little Charley seemed satisfied, and he quietly went to bed. Next day, when Charley went out in the backyard to visit Buffy’s grave, he saw the grave site covered with flowers. He looked up at his mother and asked, “Is this Heaven?”

Again Charley’s mother was at a loss to explain the difference between Buffy’s being in Heaven and visiting Buffy’s grave. That night, as she tucked her son in bed, she took a piece of chocolate from her pocket, carefully removed the wrapper, and handed it to her son.

“Let’s talk about Buffy,” she said. “Tell me what good memories you have of Buffy.” The boy’s eyes brightened as he told how he’d gone exploring by the river with Buffy, took her to bed with him every night, and played fetch and chase games with her in the backyard. 

When he’d finished with the good memories of Buffy and the piece of chocolate, his mother pulled him close and hugged him.

“Honey,” she said, “your dog Buffy is a lot like this piece of chocolate. You know the good, delicious, wonderful and enjoyable part of Buffy that you remember? That’s the part of Buffy that’s in Heaven.”

Then she held up the empty candy wrapper.

“This is the part of Buffy that’s buried in the ground — just Buffys wrapper.” Just then a beautiful, peaceful look came over the little boy’s face as he realized what his mother was saying.

This simple story teaches us that the enjoyable part of those we love is never forgotten. We lose only the physical part of the relationship, not the emotional and spiritual parts. What seemed like a puzzle for a boy and his mother just hours before had become a clear picture of the new relationship that’s possible when someone we love has died. Such is the power of story.

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Image by Achuki from Pixabay

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