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Dealing With the Loss of a Pet

How To Help Your Child Deal With the Loss of a Pet

Her name was Sassy. She was a small gray rat that had stolen our hearts from the time she was no bigger then my small daughter's thumb. We lived in a small, modern apartment at the time and she was often allowed to roam at will, safe in its airtight confines. She was clever, quick and had a wild sense of humor – who knew rats could be so darn fun and intelligent?

No one told us, however, about their notoriously short life span, and we were shocked and saddened when we found her still and cold in her cage after having spent only three wonderful years with her. As my children's first pet, the loss was devastating.

Children and their animals are inseparable. Dogs and cats often sleep with their young owners nightly, and caring for them may be the child's first brush with being responsible for another being.

When Trina Lambert's guinea pig died, it was nothing short of traumatic for her daughter, Christiana. Lambert, mother of two from Englewood, Colo., knew the average life span for a guinea pig was five to seven years and figured her daughter wouldn't have to deal with her losing a pet for quite some time. Instead, the guinea pig, Chocolate, began failing after a mere 13 months. After taking her to the vet, she was told that Chocolate was a very sick little animal.

"I was shocked," says Lambert. "Then the vet proceeded to tell me that most likely she wouldn't make it through the night."

Telling her 12-year-old daughter about Chocolate was one of the hardest things Lambert has ever had to do. "My daughter was so attached to her guinea pig; I was very worried about telling her what was going on," says Lambert. "I then had to tell Christiana that it looked like she wasn't going to last for many more hours."

The Honest Truth

Like Lambert, most parents have a difficult time telling their child about the death of a beloved pet. Dr. Stefanie Schwartz, board-certified veterinary behaviorist and author of many books on pet care, including Dr. Cookie's Guide to Living Happily Ever After ith Your Cat (St. Martin's Press, 2002) and No More Myths: True Facts About Pet Care (Random House, 2000), has seen, firsthand, the grief young pet owners face at the loss of a beloved animal.

"The best way to tell children about their pet's death is to be completely honest," says Dr. Schwartz. She says that parents should avoid telling their child that the pet went to sleep, as some children can develop serious fears of bedtime and going to sleep. Telling them that God or Jesus wanted the pet with Him is also a bad idea because children can become angry at the higher power.

Dr. Schwartz also recommends that parents be honest about their own grief. This helps children to understand that being sad is normal. "It's OK for adults to show emotion and to explain to children that they are sad and miss the pet that has died," she says. "But this is a perfect opportunity for them to show that the sadness will pass."

Betty J. Carmack has written extensively on the topic of losing a pet, including the book Grieving the Death of a Pet (Augsburg Press, 2003). She believes that the grief children feel for their pet should be respected, and explanations should be geared toward the understanding and maturity of the child. "Children's grief for their loved pets can be intense, unfamiliar and frightening," says Carmack.

LOST: Beloved Pet

Dealing with the death of a pet is challenging enough, but dealing with a pet that has disappeared is a whole different ball game because of the uncertainty factor. Carmack believes that most parents are at a loss as to how to reassure their child. Taking steps to find the pet can be a first step in calming their child.

"Remember that children pick up on non-verbal behavior of parents," says Carmack. "Any time parents can feel more in control by taking intentional steps to help find the missing pet, children may, in turn, also feel more in control and secure."

Carmack suggests that parents have their children help in making and putting up flyers so they feel they're contributing to finding the lost animal. Walking around the neighborhood calling the name of the animal or driving around with parents can also be helpful.

Healing Through Reading

Arthur loves his dog, Daisy. But Daisy is old, and sometimes when they play in the park, Daisy can't keep up with Arthur. One night, Daisy goes to sleep and when she wakes up, she's in heaven. Emma Chichester Clark gently tells the story of a boy letting go of his dog in Up in Heaven (Doubleday Books, 2004).

"A young mother recently shared with me how she was told as a child that when cats get sick, they often go off to die," says Carmack. "She explained that hearing this helped her better understand such behavior as part of the natural order of life, making it easier to accept if her cat never returned."

Performing a simple ritual during this time of uncertainty may also help your child cope. For example, one could light a special candle every morning and evening, wishing the missing pet well and sending wishes that he will be safe under whatever circumstances he finds himself.

"Depending on one's spiritual beliefs, one can also offer a prayer that the pet be safe and find her way back home, asking that the pet remember how much she is loved," says Carmack. "One can pray that God will look after pets and if they're sick, that they die in a peaceful way."

"For many children this is the first major loss and death they will have experienced," says Carmack. "To have their feelings and loss honored and supported sends a powerful message about the legitimacy of not only their feelings, but also the importance and significance of this important relationship."

4 Tips to Help Your Child Grieve – and Remember

1. Depending on the age of the child, children can be invited to be part of the medical decision-making.

2. If possible, encourage your child to say goodbye to the animal and to thank the animal for being a part of their life.

3. Putting together a scrapbook of your pet or creating some other memorial can give your child a sense of closure.

4. Volunteer as a family at your local animal shelter in the name of your pet.

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