I’ve invited award-winning pet blogger Roxanne Hawn, author of Heart Dog: Surviving the Loss of Your Canine Soul Mate, to write about what parents can do to help their children (and themselves) deal with the loss of a pet. Follow her at Champion of My Heart, and read about her own heart dog, Lilly.
In many ways, grief is like a casserole of sadness, anger, and maybe even regret mixed together. Recognizing and using those emotions in a constructive way is an important lesson for kids to learn.
Young members of the family often experience the death of a pet as their first exposure to grief. Because pets bring so many mental and physical health benefits into our lives, I believe we need to help people process their feelings of bereavement. I’d hate to see people of any age decide not to have pets in their lives because the grief after a loss felt too great.
In writing Heart Dog: Surviving the Loss of Your Canine Soul Mate, after the death of Lilly, a border collie, my seventh dog, and the first real canine heroine in my life, I tried to offer practical grief coping strategies.
I recommend working as a family to decide which activities make sense to do together and which ones may mean more to an individual. I recommend balancing these grief coping strategies with the sad task of archiving a pet’s life (storing or donating your pet’s things such as leashes, toys, beds, etc.).
Keeping busy for the sake of keeping busy doesn’t make grief go away. I truly believe that each day has its own dose of grief, and if you don’t deal with it in the moment, it simply waits for you. In other words, you have to feel those feelings, as hard as it is, to move forward.
That’s why I suggest taking on memorial projects to focus your grief and your kids’ grief in productive ways. It’s better to embrace grief through action, rather than ignore it.
- Marking Time. If a pet is diagnosed with a terminal illness or is simply getting old, create a gratitude ritual to mark the passage of time. A friend of mine placed a small stone on a tree stump every time her dog felt strong enough to walk that far. I put a penny in a vase for each day my Heart Dog survived her illness. I still have that vase with 693 pennies in it. It sits on a shelf in my office.
- Memento. It may help younger family members to keep a pet’s beloved memento with them, especially in the early days of a pet’s loss. For example, your child may want to carry around your pet’s collar or sleep with a pet’s favorite toy for a while.
- Bowl of Memories. Have everyone write down as many happy memories as they can on colorful scraps of paper, and place all those good thoughts into a pretty bowl. Anytime someone experiences a surge in grief, they can grab one of those slips of paper and, at least for a moment, remember a happier time. Children who can’t yet write or spell can contribute drawings of your pet instead.
- Tribute Video. After a pet’s passing, I think the remembrance exercise of creating a tribute video or digital slideshow – set to a meaningful song – as a way to document a pet’s life and important role in your family. Perhaps as a family, you choose your favorite photos, video clips, or songs. Then, maybe the person with the strongest video editing skills takes it from there. Once the tribute is complete, perhaps you can host a special family dinner to watch the finished project together.
- Eternal Light. Battery-powered LED candles can provide a flicker of visible hope inside a grief-stricken home. Whether you keep one LED candle next to a favorite photo of your pet in a shared living space or let each family member set up a little remembrance spot of their own. These imitation candles, which are typically safer than lit candles, can provide a comforting reminder at sad times. Get some rechargeable batteries because you’ll go through a lot of them, if you keep the LED candles on around the clock.
- Portraits. With so many digital photos but so few prints, you may need to make a special trip to get prints made of your favorite photos. As you wrap up what needs to be done to archive your pet’s life, I recommend having a large photo print of your favorite photo made and framed. Once all the toys, bowls, and other pet items are put away, it can renew the sense of emptiness in your home. To help ease that next transition, I like having a large portrait (photo print or original artwork) hung in a place of prominence in the home. Perhaps your kids would like to frame the photo or create the artwork themselves.
Since there’s a chance that you’re reading this with grief weighing heavily on your heart, let me say how very sorry I am for your loss. I hope these ideas help you and your kids process the real and raw emotion of grief.
—by Roxanne Hawn
Roxanne Hawn’s book, Heart Dog: Surviving the Loss of Your Canine Soul Mate hit the #1 spot on Amazon’s Best Seller List (Pet Loss) in its first week.