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Little boy kisses the dog in nose on the window.

Pet Loss: Learning Lessons of Love

Last week, my neighbor’s dog died. My 7-year-old granddaughter, Annabel, and I brought her some flowers and a handmade card. Annabel made the card with pink hearts and smiley faces and a picture of a dog. She wanted to make my neighbor “feel better, because she looks sad.” My neighbor gave Annabel a hug and hung the card on her refrigerator. She was touched.

Yesterday one of Annabel’s three dogs, Ein, died. He was her lifelong companion and a part of her family, even before she was born. This morning she told me, “This is my second day without Ein.” I listened as she explained what yesterday was like for her. “We took Ein to the place where they turn dogs into ashes. Then we went to the beach and the dog park and watched a movie about a dog. It’s the movie my parents watched when they picked Ein’s name. Ms. Sheila brought over my favorite cookies, and some dog treats for the other dogs. That was really nice.” Then she paused and asked me how my neighbor was doing. She said, “It’s really sad when your dog dies, you know.” I was touched.

Loss is an inevitable part of life. Grief is an inevitable part of loss. Often the death of a pet is the first loss a child experiences. How we, as grownups, respond to the loss can support a child’s well-being and create a foundation for coping with grief in the future.

Whether it is a goldfish, a turtle, or a lifelong furry friend that dies, here are a few tips for helping your child grieve well through pet loss:

  • Listen and acknowledge all of their feelings. “It’s OK to be sad or mad or worried or confused.”
  • Answer questions or clarify misunderstandings. “What’s the name of the place where they turn dogs into ashes?” “Why did the vet put the cat to sleep?”
  • Provide opportunities to talk about and remember the pet. “Would you like to draw a picture, or look at a photo, or go to the beach where the dog was happiest?”
  • Recognize that a current loss may bring up feelings from past losses. For example, your child might be crying about the turtle, and missing a grandparent who moved to a nursing home.
  • Do not minimize the loss, or try to replace the pet. “It was only a goldfish!” “We’ll get a new puppy.”
  • Model that feelings are OK and manageable. It is OK for your child to see you express emotions. However, if you are feeling overwhelmed reach out to another adult for help.
  • Teach your child empathy by giving and receiving comforting gestures offered by friends, family members, or neighbors during times of loss.
  • Inform other adults as appropriate, such as a child’s teacher, coach, and childcare provider.

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About Michele Tryon, CCLS

About Michele  Tryon, CCLS Michele Tryon, CHKD community outreach coordinator and parent educator has worked with children and families for 30 years, providing services in the hospital, home, school and community setting. Michele is a Certified Child Life Specialist, a Certified Positive Discipline™ parent educator, a nationally recognized trainer/consultant for Nurturing Parenting Programs™ and co-author of The Nurturing Program for Parents and Their Children with Special Needs and Health Challenges©.