Helping Your Child Handle the Loss of a Pet The death of a family pet is never easy, especially when you throw children in the mix. This first-hand account can help you and your spouse explain, help and move forward with your child. BY ERIK FISHER, PH.D.
Explaining the loss of a pet to a child is never easy, but it's a part of the cycle of life.
“ It was okay and good for her to grieve. Death is one of the lessons a child may be fortunate enough to understand in an environment of trust and love.”
Our two dogs—what my wife and me considered our first "children"—graduated to the dog park in the sky.
Ivy, a 16-year-old blue Merle Australian shepherd, and Hunter, a 14-year-old black chow shepherd mix, lived long, relatively healthy lives. However, in the end, we felt we had to assist them along their journey allowing them to leave with dignity and not suffer unduly.
Both Ivy and Hunter were adopted after an early life of abuse. Ivy sprung back very well after she adjusted to her new family. From the day we found her in the shelter on my 30th birthday, she was full of life and spunk.
Ivy and Hunter both gave us so much in their unique ways, and even though Hunter could bring me to the brink of rage with his defiance and manipulative nature, we loved him just the same… and most importantly, I learned to have more patience. They taught my wife and me that we could be parents to a human child, and helped us to become the parents we are today. They cared for our daughter, Grace, as if she was their own, and their patience with her as she was growing was admirable for any older sibling.
Explaining Death, Letting Go & Moving Forward
We had let Grace know over the past six months that the dogs were getting older and knew the day was coming when we would have to likely make this decision.
After losing both grandfathers this year, we did not know how Grace would handle it. When we told her of our decision the night before we made arrangements, she cried like we had not heard her cry before and just like a 6 year-old can do, she was asking for another dog in the same sentence while explaining they were her best friends ever.
It was okay and good for her to grieve. Death is one of the lessons a child may be fortunate enough to understand in an environment of trust and love. We wanted her to know that her feelings were her own through this, and she has handled this gracefully.
What I told Grace—when she asked about getting another dog—was that when we lose a person or a pet, we need to give our heart time to heal so that we don't try to fill that empty space with something or someone else.
This is a powerful life lesson. I told her to let her feelings be known and honor the memory of her dogs and one day it would be time to get another one. We would all know when. We all feel that we are better people because of Ivy and Hunter, and even their death happened for us, not to us. Their last day was filled with quality time: playing with their doggie friends, a Frosty Paws ice cream party and cooked meat for dinner.
When it came time, our veterinarian came to our house. I did not want the dogs' last moments to be feeling fear and unfamiliarity. Grace chose to be a part of the process, as we had discussed numerous times, and she helped where she could, to gain some power over her feelings of helplessness handling the situation respectfully.
A child's view of death is often channeled through the parent, and we wanted Grace to not fear it, but instead see it as a part of life. Death does not have to be morbid or scary. It is a transition—another life lesson.
Erik Fisher, PhD, aka Dr. E…, is a licensed psychologist and author of two books whose work has been featured NBC, CBS, FOX and CNN. Visit him at www.DrEPresents.com to learn more about his new show, Off The Couch with Dr. E… .