Wednesday, December 14, 2011

Helping Children Deal with Loss and Grief of a Pet - by Cara Potapshyn Meyers

My son saying goodbye to his favorite companion

It has been a little over five weeks since the loss of our beloved female dog. During this time, my son has been acting oddly, with no real explanation for his behavior. He has been going to the school nurse with various maladies. The nurse knew of our loss, so she has been very caring and tolerant of his visits to her.
My son had been complaining about headaches, stomach aches, eye problems, neck strain...and he has been biting his fingernails half way down his nail beds. As a mother, knowing your child is suffering inside, is excruciatingly painful. We read appropriate books for children on the loss of a pet. I spent countless hours having conversations with my son about his feelings of losing our dog. Still, days and weeks have gone by and my son has lost interest in his normal activities. My husband and I even spent our entire parent/teacher conference discussing my son, his behaviors and his apparent disinterest in school activities due to his grief.
The first thing we did was to speak with the school psychologist about having our son meet with her a few times. She readily agreed to do so. I then decided to do an Internet search on how children grieve and what could be done to help my son through his grief.
I learned that children grieve very differently from adults. The death of a family pet is often the first death experienced by a child. Children naturally develop strong attachments to companion animals, relating to them as siblings, playmates, confidants and even imaginary protectors. Although children experience grief differently than adults, they do grieve. They need support and guidance to understand their loss, to mourn that loss, and to find ways to remember and memorialize their deceased loved one. Children look to us for guidance in word as well action. The death of a beloved pet presents an emotional stress, even for a well-adjusted adult. Thus, it is important for adults to access bereavement supports in order to deal with their emotions and be more effective parents for their children. Also, we must avoid projecting our own overconcerns on a child, creating problems that would not have otherwise existed.
There are age related stages related to the death of a pet. For my eight year old son, children in his age group know that death is irreversible. They do not normally think this might happen to them, but they may be concerned about the death of their parents. My son mentioned to me that I had to live to at least 90 years old. They are very curious and may ask questions that appear morbid. These questions are natural and are best answered frankly and honestly. At this age they may manifest their grief in many ways, such as school problems, anti-social behavior, somatic or physical concerns, aggression, and withdrawal or clinging behavior. As with young children, it is important that they be reassured that they did not do or say anything that caused the death.
A child’s ability to cope with an animal companion’s death can be compromised by other stresses, such as parental or sibling conflict, mental health issues, and other family pressures. Children in high stress families often develop early dependencies and attachments with a family pet. When that companion dies, it may create a crisis for that child.
As adult helpers and caregivers, we need to be mindful of our own loss history and any gaps in bereavement support for us, particularly when we were children. Many of us have early memories of a pet loss. They may be punctuated with resentment due to a lack of factual information or parental preparation regarding a pet’s death. Too often, we still have feelings that we were excluded from opportunities to say goodbye to a beloved animal, when we were children. In order to adequately support our children now, when they are facing the loss of a pet, we need to heal our wounded hearts, and be mindful of our own “inner child” that may also grieve deeply when a family pet dies. In a too-busy world, so many of us have lost contact with that. Adult relationships with beloved companion animals tend to evoke our own more child-like qualities. And when we lose a pet we can be left feeling bereft, ourselves, longing for the very comfort that we now need to provide our children.
The loss of a pet can be a significant source of grief in a family. Indeed, it is the loss of a beloved member. That can lead to disorganization in family functioning, due to bereavement and changes in routines. New ones will have to be created, and it can be beneficial to discuss this. Children will need support to cope with the changes - as well as to understand the emotional impact on everyone, including their parents. It is important to show them it is good for families to react and grieve together.
When a child loses a beloved pet it is advisable to inform other significant people in your child’s life. This includes teachers, the school nurse, even the school social worker or school psychologist. We chose to involve everyone mentioned. They are in an excellent position to observe and understand any significant changes in our child. There may be an onset of daydreaming in class (noted by our son’s teacher), or at home. Homework may not get done (which has been occurring), and participation in class may drop noticeably. Appetite and sleep habits may change, or the child may become quiet, or even irritable. These are all signs that need to be addressed. Children can’t cope by themselves, and will need all the understanding and support available. Sometimes, if requested, a good teacher will schedule class time to talk about pets and their death. The loss of a beloved companion animal is often our children’s first real encounter with death, and that experience will remain and affect them for the rest of their lives. They need their adult role models to learn appropriate responses. We can help them by better coping with our own emotional problems associated with loss, death and dying. It is never too late to develop skills and approaches for yourself, that will also enhance your child’s growing ability to deal with this kind of traumatic loss.
Through my research on this subject I came across a suggestion to help with a child’s grief that never occurred to me: Memorialize your pet. According to an article called, Grief and Children, by Kimberly L. Keith, children need good distractions from fixation on the death of a pet. The following is a list of ways Ms. Keith provides, to creatively memorialize a pet.
  • Encourage children to express their grief by drawing pictures of their pet, and sharing what the pictures mean to them. Always listen to what they have to say, and praise them for their thoughts. If a child would like the picture put in his/her room, then honor that wish. It could keep the pet closer to the child at bedtime until the grief has subsided.
  • Make a scrapbook or log with photos as well as drawn pictures of the pet and family members. Write memories beneath or beside them. Humorous instances should be included on the pages - which can help develop associations with happiness each time the book is opened. Other small items such as a dogtag, or small toy, can be included, as well as sympathy cards, and letters. You can find some very nice packages on the market, for making scrapbooks.
  • Planting a living memorial, such as a tree or bush in memory of a pet, can feel very satisfying. Making a small flower bed in a spot that was favored by the pet, can also be a fine memorial that brings some closure to the grief.
  • Some people have a ritual of lighting candles on anniversaries, and reminiscing about their life with their pets. This offers them a special sense of comfort and respect. Let children participate in this.
We chose to get a memorial rock, to place in our rock garden which will have our dog’s name, date of death, and a paw print etched into it. Once it arrives, we will have a memorial service to honor our sweet dog. Each family member will have the opportunity to say what they loved about our dog and what she used to do that made us laugh. This will hopefully lead to some closure for our son.
There is a lovely, short story, written by Wallace Sife, Ph.D. from his article: All Pets Go to Heaven. To read the full story, click here.
As the last line states:
“Heaven is love, and and pets always share that with us.”

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