Note: This is a guest post by Kathleen Chamberlin and her daughter Heather Chamberlin-Scholle. Kathleen is the author of “Marcy Mary: The Memoirs of a Dachshund-American Princess, The Early Years.” You can learn more about Kathleen and her book at http://marcymary.com. Heather is a licensed clinical social worker.
Ginger was a white boxer with pink and black jowls that got caught on her misaligned canines. This gave her a terrifying countenance, but she was really a very gentle, loyal, happy creature. She came into my life as a puppy when I was about six. Ginger and I had many adventures together that I recorded with my Brownie Camera. We had two glorious years together.
I did not lose Ginger to death but to circumstances. My parents’ marriage dissolved, and my mom and I were soon living in a “no dogs” apartment. Losing Ginger on top of all the losses I experienced at that time brought a special hurt. Unfortunately, this scenario is repeated many times today as families must give up pets when they lose their homes or simply cannot afford the expense of a pet. Whether a pet passes on or must be given away, children can find this loss particularly painful as their lives change dramatically.
Last December, I met 8-year-old Emma at a holiday party. Emma knew I had written a “dog book,” and so she sought me out to talk about dogs. She eagerly told me all about Shane (not pictured), a border collie who had always been a part of her life. Suddenly, Emma’s eyes filled. Shane had died a few months prior. Wiping away tears, she said in a whisper, “I miss Shane,” and looked directly into my eyes. She then asked me a surprising question: “Do you believe that animals go to heaven?”
Because I knew Emma’s parents’ beliefs, I was able to confirm them. “Oh yes,” I said, and we spent several minutes talking about the reunions we will have in heaven. As we talked I could almost see Ginger romping down a grassy slope, jowls and ears flapping as she ran toward me. I could almost feel her warm muscular body under my hand.
Later on, as I thought about Emma, Shane and Ginger, I realized that many children are left to sort things out for themselves when they lose a pet. Emma’s parents supported her through Shane’s final days, acknowledging the powerful and conflicting emotions she was experiencing. Most importantly, they helped Emma memorialize Shane. Emma was able to store the precious memory of all Shane had meant to her deep in her heart.
Helping a child grieve the loss of a dog
For many children, the loss of a pet – through death or other circumstance – is a child’s first encounter with losing someone close to them. Here are some things you can do to help the child in your life through such a loss:
1. Comfort and hold the child who has lost a pet.
Acknowledge the deep feelings that accompany the loss and share your own feelings of sadness. It is OK to cry together. Expect feelings beyond sadness such as anger and guilt. Remember children often feel responsible for experiences beyond their control.
2. Let the child talk about the pet.
Answer questions honestly, and reassure the child. A good rule of thumb is to let the child take the lead. Children tend to ask questions for which they are prepared to hear truthful answers.
3. Rituals help a child grieve a pet.
A journal dedicated to the pet, a memorial stone, photos or ceremonies can be very therapeutic. Don’t be surprised if grief resurfaces randomly.
4. Be sensitive to cues about getting another pet.
A new pet is not a replacement. It is not fair to the child or the animal. If you do decide on another pet, consider a rescue animal. This puts the new pet in a whole new frame of reference. It is a fellow creature who needs your help, and you and your child are doing something meaningful.
If you believe in a future life that includes reunions with beloved animals, share this hope with your child.
If your child is overwhelmed and does not seem to be progressing, seek a qualified child therapist. Consistent caring and open conversation and will help your child heal.
The loss of a pet can be especially difficult for a child. Still, it is an opportunity to teach him/her how to negotiate the turbulent waters of grief, a skill – like it or not – we must all use at some point in our lives.
What has helped you grieve a pet?
(Kathleen is pictured above with her two dachshunds. The pictured border collie is one of my Fargo pet sitting dogs, Pixie.)