Jennie Baxla, Volunteer Coordinator
I was 10 when I first experienced the loss of a pet. Rusty was both my first dog and my first experience with death. As a child, I didn’t understand the difficult decision my parents were faced with when Rusty’s health started decline. I just knew I was losing my friend.
I was an adult when I experienced the loss of another pet. Ripley was the dog my parents got when I was in high school. Ripley was 12 weeks old when we adopted her and slept in my arms as we drove her home for the first time. Many years later, when my parents were again faced with a difficult decision due to Ripley’s declining health, they decided to put her to sleep at the veterinary clinic. My family and I piled into the car with Ripley for one last time, and she curled up in my lap (all 80 pounds of her) just like she had as a puppy.
Though I experienced each death differently, once as a child and once as an adult, I was surprised at how hard they both hit me. I volunteer with a group for grieving children, so I’m familiar with the grieving process. But what I often forget is that grief is different for everyone, especially when it’s firsthand.
Anyone who has ever loved an animal has experienced a similar situation. Though we’ve all felt the sadness of pet loss, there are some helpful ways to cope with this grief. We hope that these suggestions help anyone who is currently grieving the loss of a beloved pet.
- When explaining the situation to children, make sure to use specific words like dead and dying. Children often experience death very literally and it can be difficult for them to understand that death is permanent when phrases like, “he’s in a better place,” or “she’s sleeping” are used. Using words like dead and dying can be difficult for adults, who are used to softening the blow of these harsh words for other adults, but don’t be afraid to show your own grief in front of children. Allowing children to observe your grief shows them that their own feelings of sadness are justified.
- It may be helpful to use books to explain death to children and to help them cope. Some options are: I’ll Always Love You by Hans Wilhelm, When a Pet Dies by Fred Rogers, and Dog Heaven and Cat Heaven, both by Cynthia Rylant. Books like I Miss You by Pat Thomas and Leslie Harker and Help Me Say Goodbye by Janis Silverman are not specific to pet loss, but often include activities designed to help children work through grief.
- We experience grief differently as an adult. While we may logically understand the situation, the extreme feelings we experience may make it much more difficult to comprehend. If you have the chance to prepare for your pet’s death, consider making a print of your pet’s paw in clay or with paint on a canvas. Write down your feelings and thoughts in a journal, contact a Pet Loss Support Helpline, or join a local grief group. Contact a nearby funeral home for end of life services for your pet. Many veterinary offices and funeral homes offer specialized pet loss services such as cremation. You may also want to hold a memorial service for your pet, whether it’s with the help of a local funeral home or something you organize informally.
- Most importantly, give yourself the permission and time to grieve the loss of your pet. It’s perfectly natural to experience strong feelings of sadness when a pet dies. While you eventually may be ready to bring home another pet, keep in mind that everyone grieves differently. What works for one person may not work for another. Some people bring home another pet right away, while others may wait years. You’ll know when you are ready. When you are prepared to bring home a new friend, we hope you’ll contact us here at SICSA.