Having a pet is so similar to having a child. They are part of your family and sometimes they become your partner, friend and baby. You love them, care for them and in return you get an amazing gift. The gift of unconditional love and a powerful relationship that only pet owners can truly understand.
I have always had a pet in my life. I grew up with dogs, cats, hamsters, rabbits and rats. I learned to respect animals, play and engage with them safely, take care of them but most importantly, I learned to love them. I would confide my inner thoughts and feelings to my pets. I felt like they understood me when the world did not. They were their to comfort me and provide a snuggle and a kiss.
The hardest part about having a pet, is having to say goodbye. The loss of a pet can usually be the first time a child experiences a death. It can be very traumatic and children may not fully understand what is happening. Parents may not know how to prepare a child on an impending death or how to explain death at all.
Recently my brother’s family had to say goodbye to their yellow lab, Carson. Carson was a huge part of the family and the kid’s lives (ages 3 & 6). They knew that Carson was ill and didn’t have a lot of time left. They spoke honestly and openly about what was happening to help prepare the kids. They supported them emotionally, by encouraging them to express their feelings verbally, through play and art. They also tried to capture beautiful moments with them by taking photos.
As a child life specialist, one of our roles is working with patients and families in the most unfortunate experience, a death. It can be the death of a child or a loved one. We are their to support the patient, siblings and parents. One of the interventions that we often use is creating a ceramic mold of the child’s hand or foot. It can be done prior to death or after. Having a mold or print can capture a piece of the child in a concrete way. It can be incredibly powerful and help loved ones grieve and memorialize their loss.
I suggested this to my brother and sister-in-law, to help the kids cope with the loss of Carson. This is what they created. Beautiful right?
The kids talk about Carson and share memories that they have of her. Their grief is supported by two amazing parents.
- Be honest- kids need to trust you and the information that you provide needs to be truthful.
- Simple words- Use simple language in explaining what is or has happened.
- Encourage self-expression- Allow kids to express how they feel. Being angry and sad is a normal feeling, don’t dismiss it and try to change their feeling.
- Validation-Validate their feelings and normalize them. The loss of a pet is something that many families experience.
- Time- Children may talk about the death of their pet right after or months later. Children process things differently. They may not have the vocabulary or understanding that the death is finalized until later.
- Healthy ways to cope- Provide outlets in play, art, books and verbal discussions about healthy ways to cope, release feelings and memorialize their loss.