It was a rainy Friday morning when our son woke us. He had found his cat curled up at the end of his bed, and she wasn’t doing well. We rushed to the veterinarian’s office, where we learned that she had suffered a stroke and had only few hours to live.
Suddenly faced with many decisions, we felt an overwhelming need as attached parents to comfort our children in their time of loss.
It isn’t a topic we want to think about or plan for, but especially for families experiencing a pet death for the first time, there’s a lot to consider. Below, experts offer suggestions for helping kids cope and for honoring the special relationship between children and their pets.
What does death look like?
“Many people tell me they feel more deeply about losing a pet than a person in their lives,” says Margo Mitchell Hunt, a veterinarian and mom of three boys practicing in Austin, Texas. But when children are allowed to experience death first-hand, it can remove some of the fear.
It can be surprising for parents, but depending on a child’s age and personality, she may want to pet a dog after he dies, or help dig a hole for burial. Rev. Rebecca Ninke, of Madison, Wis., is a mom of two kids and five pets who got her start as a Lutheran minister presiding over backyard pet funerals. She advised parents to let kids “see, feel and handle death if they want to … obviously no child should be forced, but open the opportunity to let the child decide.”
When a pet is euthanized
If the decision is made to euthanize, Hunt always lets parents lead the conversation with their own families. She said her experience as a mother has taught her that parents know their children better than anyone.
Where she assists moms and dads is in explaining how the process will work because it can be unfamiliar. Most clinics will allow families to say good-bye in a treatment room or do whatever it takes to help kids feel most secure. Hunt said parents shouldn’t be afraid to ask for what their family needs. “It’s your moment,” she explains.
Knowing that an animal’s death is imminent can be emotional and overwhelming. Kids wondering what to say might like this thought from my sister, another animal-lover and mama who supported our family the night our cat died at home, “I don’t like good-byes,” she said simply. “I might say instead, ‘Tell her anything that you want her to know.’”
“Bodies hold what’s inside us”
The choice to bury a pet or have her cremated is more than just a question of logistics. Our veterinarian says burial seems to be easiest for young kids to comprehend.
Sometimes backyard burial isn’t an option. Ninke once explained cremation to her son by “talking about our mulch pile and how things go back to the earth. Cremation speeds up the process a bit.”
It may also help children if they are allowed to cremate a memento – a photo, a drawing, or even a blanket or toy — along with their pet.
“Remind kids that our bodies hold the things that are inside us,” Ninke said. “Where might pets go when our earthly bodies are tired and need a rest? I think it’s good to let kids ponder it.”
Holding a memorial service
Although many families want to hold a memorial service to say goodbye, Ninke points out that most religions come up short on the topic of animal souls. The famous “Rainbow Bridge” poem talks about a place where animals go to wait for their humans. Once the pair is reunited, they cross a bridge together to a peaceful afterlife.
But Ninke said constructing pet eulogies doesn’t have to be complicated. “For little kids, it can be as simple as asking, ‘What was your favorite part about Scuffy?’” she said. Simple ceremonies can also include songs, funny stories or favorite memories. Kids often like hearing the story of how the pet became part of the family.
The Grieving Process
Ninke and Hunt have both seen it – a child who cries one moment and plays the next. Children may experience several emotions as they process their pet’s death, including guilt over a small infraction, like once pulling a dog’s tail.
Ninke’s rule is to “let kids guide their own grief,” she said. “Invite conversation, but never force, and realize that it might come in waves.”
Hunt recommends the books Cat Heaven and Dog Heaven for children who are looking for answers to “what happens next.”
Parents might question whether they should let their own grief show, but Hunt said it’s important to let kids see your sadness so they know it’s OK to be sad too.
When a pet dies, it can be comforting to kids to keep their memory close. A few suggestions include:
- Planting flowers near their grave or in another special spot
- Designing a grave marker or painting rocks
- Making photo collages
- Capturing a paw print with paint or in clay. (Hunt has one from a beloved cat that she turned into a Christmas tree ornament.)
- Creating a shrine with the pet’s collar, some photos, and a special toy. Kids might also like the experience of cuddling with a blanket or toy for a while.
- Donations can be made in the pet’s name to a shelter or therapy dog association
“I have had people clip locks of hair, take pictures … I’ve seen people cry, wail, sing, pray, chant and even laugh,” Hunt said. “There’s no right or wrong way to say goodbye to a friend.”
As the days passed after our cat died, my children’s mourning seemed to shift. “Mom, it’s like a stale grief now,” my son said one day. “You forget about it, but then you remember and it’s there, and you still have to deal with it.”
Eventually, though, many families decide to bring another animal into their hearts.
A “proper” amount of time is different for every family, but Hunt said when it feels right, it always is.
Ninke agrees. Although losing a pet can be difficult for a child, welcoming new love into your home can teach many valuable lessons about the circle of life. “We are born, we grow and thrive, and then we return to earth as nourishment for the next generation,” Ninke said. “Personally, I think pets are a glimpse into what humans try to emulate when it comes to unconditional love.”
Kara S. Anderson is a freelance writer raising animals and animal lovers in northern Illinois. Her family includes a new kitten named George. She writes about parenting, homeschooling and green living at www.quillandcamera.wordpress.com.