When you came home from the hospital, she was there to greet you, tail wagging. During a particularly rough day during the toddler years, he curled up in your lap, providing comfort. When you came home, in tears, after dropping off your daughter on her first day of school, she jumped up and licked your face, and you couldn’t help but smile.
Our pets are our companions as we raise our children. Our kids grow to love them as much as we do. Sadly, as pets grow older, we face a gut-wrenching conversation: talking to our family about the death of our pet family members.
This may be a child’s first experience with death. What should we tell our children to get them ready for this sad, but inevitable milestone? How should we help our kids process a pet loss when we are grieving as well?
To help answer these questions, we consulted Coleen Ellis, the co-founder of The Pet Loss Center, a pet memorial center that recently opened here in Austin. A chance encounter with a pet parent facing the death of her pet was a defining moment for Coleen in 1998. After Coleen’s beloved Schnauzer mix Nico died at the age of 14 in 2004, she decided she had to do something to help pet parents plan for, experience and cope with the death of their animal companions, so she opened the country’s first stand-alone pet funeral home. Coleen is often referred to as the “Pet Loss Pioneer”, having received the first Death and Grief Studies Certification specializing in Pet Loss Companioning and having written the book Pet Parents: A Journey Through Unconditional Love & Grief.
Coleen has these suggestions for parents living with an aging pet:
Prepare children for a pet’s demise with books and conversations. Books like Dog Heaven and Cat Heaven (both by Cynthia Rylant) can help prepare kids for what happens after a pet passes away. Parents can take a cue from nature to talk about seasons, the cycle of life and the fact that death is a part of life. You can have these conversations throughout a pet’s life.
Answer questions honestly. You are doing your child no favors by covering up a pet’s death or hiding it from them. As difficult as it is to talk about, answer your questions as best as you can, according to your beliefs.
Use appropriate language. Avoid using phrases like “put to sleep”, which can be confusing to children. Instead, use words like “die” and “dead”, which they can understand.
Allow children to say final goodbyes. After your pet dies, give your entire family the time and space to say goodbye to their beloved pet family member. Children are what Coleen refers to as “organic” mourners. “Kids do it right,” she said. Kids do what comes naturally to them, which often means processing a pet death in stages. A child might cry and spend a few minutes with a pet and then leave to play, which may appear to be disrespectful to adults. But later, he or she might return to grieve again. “There is a difference between mourning and grieving,” Coleen stated. “Mourning is what we do and show and grieving is what we feel.”
As parents, we want to protect our children and save them from heartbreak, but we have to realize that our kids may be devastated. “Of course, they are going to be sad. Of course they are going to cry, but there is nothing wrong with that. Nothing at all,” Coleen reassured.
Coleen advises parents to give yourself permission to recognize the impact the pet had on your own life. Pets can mark chapters in our lives, and can sometimes be with us longer than our children. Let your children see you cry, if you need to. “Parents are the barometer to how the children are going to respond in that situation,” she added.
Involve children in a tribute to pet. Decide – as a family – the best way to memorialize a pet death. Parents (and children) can write a letter, draw a picture or even come up with a pet “bucket list” to spoil a pet as he or she ages. One family reached out to the child’s school and got permission to organize a pet food drive in the deceased pet’s honor. You could create a tribute area in your garden or backyard or create a stepping stone in honor of your pet. You could event plant a tree to memorialize your beloved pet family member.
At The Pet Loss Center, Coleen has a Tribute Wall where that adults and children leave messages to pets. If a pet is cremated, children can write on the urn containing the pet’s ashes. Children can also collect items such as a hair clipping, leash, collar and favorite toy for a memory box. Coleen’s goal is to work with families to look back on a pet’s end of life without regrets and with the information and options they need to make the pet’s end of life beautiful and peaceful.