I want to preface this post with a few points. First, I am not a therapist. Second, I do not equate the trauma of a pet death to the death of a human. Third, I am not an expert on this topic. I am simply a mom of four kids who has to deal with the loss of a pet.
In early March, I got the news that our beloved 9 year old boxer, Stella, had mast cell cancer. It was not completely unexpected as we had had a few lumps removed over the course of the last year. However, it was still a punch to the gut. I remember my very first thought after the news was, “Oh my gosh…my kids. How will we tell them?”
I experienced a lot of anticipatory grief. I knew the end was nearing. I knew we were going to have to do right by our dog. I knew our kids would be completely heartbroken. I ugly cried every evening after I put the kids to bed. I had a feeling she would probably not make it into the summer with us.
So how do we navigate pet grief with our kids, in the midst of grieving ourselves?
Do not put adult-sized worry onto kids. I did not tell my kids in early March that Stella was dying. She had an obvious tumor on her neck. We told the kids she was sick and they needed to give her lots of snuggles and attention. We told them that Stella would not get better. They accepted this answer for a while.
Have age appropriate conversations with your kids, when you have to. About three weeks before we had to say goodbye to Stella, my 7 year old questioned me on the enlarging growth on her neck. He said, “But WHAT does she have? What is wrong with her neck?” I told him she was sick and she wouldn’t be with us much longer. He then looked me straight in the face and said, “But what? WHAT does she have?” I said, “Stella has cancer. She is going to die.” I will never forget his face. He froze. Then broke. Then he exploded into tears. He leaned down and hugged Stella, continuing to sob. I hugged him and said, “Let mom and dad worry about this. I want you to hug her and love on her and tell her what a good dog she is.”
Do. Not. Lie. To. Your. Kids. Kids are smart and they will either catch you in your lies or begin to distrust you, in my opinion. I knew we were nearing the end with Stella and I had put my son’s questions off as long as possible. I did not want him to worry or make the end of his school year overwhelmingly sad, but he wanted to know what was wrong with our dog and I told him.
As mid May rolled around, my husband and I knew Stella probably had a couple more weeks at most. One of my 5 year old twins awoke in the middle of the night, sobbing. This isn’t super abnormal over the last year, but this night was different then the usual wake up. She looked at my husband and said, “The book I’m writing in my class is about Stella. I’m scared she’s going to die before I get to read the book to her.”
Kids have big emotions and big feelings about big topics. I didn’t realize that my 5 year old had been processing this anticapatory grief until that evening. She too was worried about losing Stella. We hugged her and told her it will be okay. We have to just be there with them. We have to accept the fact that their grief, while it may look different, isn’t less grief then ours. And kids don’t have the mature processing skills adults have. As anticipated, I noticed there were increased tears and fits for the last couple weeks of Stella’s life. Part of that was probably end-of-school-year exhaustion, but I also think it was saddness over our pup.
We put Stella down a couple days after my daughter read the book to her.
Kids are terrified they will forget their pet. We had a little funeral for Stella. And I reminded my kids that we have to remember the years of love and joy we shared with her. I reminded them of the angry squirrel in our yard that Stella chased up a tree. Stella loved people food. She loved running outside. I reminded the twins about walking Stella around the yard on a leash like a horse. I said, “Remember how you used Stella as a pillow on family movie nights? She loved that.” My kids love talking about Stella memories. Don’t be afraid to talk about your beloved pet.
Kids will say awkward things about death. Yes, they will say extremely awkward things. If you ever need to hear a weird comment about death, just talk with a kid about it. Even with the strange commentary, their brains are trying to process what just happened, in their own way.
Distract. We had had a camping trip planned since February the same weekend we had to say goodbye to Stella. We decided the camping trip would present an excellent distraction and it did. The kids mentioned throughout the weekend how sad they were and how they missed Stella. We hugged. We cried. And we made s’mores over a campfire and remembered Stella together.
I always tell people how wonderful it is to have a dog. We love our dogs so much. The day we have to say goodbye to them hurts so very badly. Walking through this grief with my kids was strangely theraputic for me. Sometimes just hearing the words out loud, “We are going to remember all the good times we shared with Stella” was exactly what I needed to hear as well. Saying goodbye is hard. Grief is hard. But the time spent with the dog always outweighs that pain, in my opinion. We said goodbye to Stella, but we cling to memories of her forever. RIP. You were a good dog, Stella.