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Saying Goodbye to a Pet

When a family pet dies, some children grieve, while others seem unaffected. Here's how to respond with care.
 

Learning Benefits

The parent's story: My 4-year-old daughter Carla watched intently as I packed away the little dog's bed and rubber toys. "Bella was an old dog and she had a good, long life," I thought to myself. "Still, I can't believe she's gone." Careful not to let Carla see my moist eyes, I placed the familiar food and water dishes in the carton, recalling the moment that my husband had brought home the bouncy terrier pup soon after we were married. From that day forward, Bella was the most energetic member of our family. She began to slow down, though, about a month ago, and recently, we could barely rouse her.

The children and I took her to the animal hospital yesterday, and she died there. My 8-year-old son, Joey, sobbed when the vet explained to us that Bella's heart had simply stopped beating. The doctor tried to resuscitate Bella while we waited in another room, but it was already too late. Carla didn't understand what had happened. Later, she seemed bewildered by the somber mood at the dinner table. She was the only one with an appetite. "Are we going to get another dog?" Carla asked, digging into her spaghetti with gusto. No one was in the mood to answer her.

This morning, Carla went bounding off at the first honk of the car-pool driver's horn. Maybe she was glad to escape our sad household. Although Carla is not upset yet, I wonder if I should tell her teacher about Bella's death? At "Back to School" night, we heard that it often helps children if their teacher is told about any unusual events in the family.

The teacher's story: When Carla's mom phoned and related the story of their dog's death, I was reminded of how sad and confused I felt as a child when my family's cat died. I remembered plaguing my parents with questions. Now, as a teacher, I have noticed that some of our young students are also curious about death. Preschoolers ask lots of tough questions, especially if they feel frightened. A few of our children became alarmed when they encountered a dead squirrel on the school doorstep earlier this month, and their worrying was contagious. Every now and then the loss of a gerbil or pet rabbit disturbs some children, though others seem unaffected by it. We talk about these events at circle time.

I am glad to see that Carla is taking the loss of her dog so well. It hasn't altered her cheerful behavior in school, but Carla's mom seemed to be asking me to help in some way. I wonder if I should bring up the topic if Carla doesn't mention it.

Dr. Brodkin's Assessment
Although it is upsetting, mourning for a pet prepares a child to deal with future losses. Many children want to talk about what has happened. But talking with children about death is difficult for many adults. So the teacher and Carla's mom could be quietly grateful for Carla's silence on the subject. At times like this, some children wonder aloud about what it means to be dead. They may ask, "Can I die?" or "Will you or Daddy die?" If such thoughts could be lurking in her mind, Carla hasn't dared to utter them. She might sense the adults' discomfort with the topic. Although it is not a good idea to expect grief from a child who does not feel it, acknowledging one's own sad feelings and welcoming children's questions can help them to master any fears or worrisome fantasies.

What Carla's parents can do: If Carla appears bewildered about the family mood, her parents might explain that they are sad because Bella won't be there with them anymore. It's okay to let Carla see their moist eyes. In fact, quietly acknowledging that even parents can be sad and recover is reassuring to young children. Carla's mother should also answer any questions that her daughter raises. "We all love dogs so much that we'll probably get another one someday," would be a helpful response to Carla's question about getting a new pet. At some point, Carla may have further questions about what happened to Bella or about what it means to be dead. The facts about Bella's growing old and being sick should then be told, briefly, in simple language that a child Carla's age can understand. If she asks about people dying, her parents can reassure her that people live much longer than dogs, and suggest that they themselves hope to live a very long time, to be around to see her become a mommy and then a grandma. But these explanations should only be offered in response to questions raised by Carla. The adults should take their cues from her.

What the teacher can do: It would be fine for the teacher to say something simple, such as, "I was sorry to hear from your mom that Bella died." If Carla wants to talk about it then or later, the teacher might show that she understands by mentioning the loss of her own childhood pet. And the teacher can answer Carla's questions in the same manner suggested for the parents. In school, as at home, adults should take their cues from the child who has lost a pet or a loved one. Comfort a child who is grieving, but don't look askance at one who, like Carla, shows little or no reaction. Carla is not heartless, but fortunately inexperienced and unfamiliar with the full meaning of the vet's words, "Bella died." Someday Carla may announce in class that she is getting a new dog. By inviting her to bring in photos of both Bella and the new puppy, the teacher can help the 4 year old to remember her old dog with affection while celebrating the arrival of a new family pet.

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