Helping kids say farewell to pets

It’s been a sad week for pets in my circle—my neighbor’s dog ran into the road and was hit by a car and killed, while friends had to put their dog down after a long illness.  Besides being sad for us grown-ups when we lose a beloved pet, it also raises the issue of what to say to kids.

The first thing to focus on in these cases is our own feelings.  While it makes sense to be sad, sometimes we over-focus on our kids’ reactions as a way of deflecting our own grief and loss, unconsciously comforting ourselves by over-concern for our children.

Although “experts” may be ready to tell us what to do in all sorts of situations, my aim is to actually be comforting and useful more than necessarily “right.”  Perhaps it goes without saying that we all ideally want to be clear and boundaried about our own emotions so that then we can be containing and compassionate about our kids’ feelings and needs.  In the service of that, however, I would say that if you have had a loss recently, or are worried about someone who is ill, or about how to pay the bills or about if you will be able to stay strong, engaged and healthy enough to be your best Self, then my message is more about the wish to offer, and find, kindred connection in the sometimes lonely, sometimes guilt-ridden and sometimes overwhelmed places that can be parenting.

I keep saying that we’re truly all in this together, and I believe that being more consciously aware of this (rather than “advice”) is what not only gets us through, but what breaks us through to more nourishing ways of being.  Parenting, more broadly defined as an attitude of caring, not just about our children, but about everyone else’s children as well as about animals, each other, the earth, our own inner lives, etc. is precisely what brings us together here in this blog—a modern artifact of ancient, perhaps eternal, instincts about trying to communicate, connect, give, get and grow. 

When those we love die, be they animals or people, we wonder if they are finished or if their spirits endure in some way.  While none of us have the answer, we all have the questions—and in this way we are not alone.

To console a heart-broken child is a heart-breaking endeavor.  I go back in my mind, again and again, to the image of a bowl.  I envision the bad feelings, the brokenness, the anger, bile, confusion and tangled mess all flowing into a large sturdy bowl; I imagine my task as providing the bowl, trusting that a place to put it and a relationship of holding will provide comfort and cohesion over time. 

There are no perfect words.  There is no use in denying that life includes loss, sorrow and death.  But when we are real about our grief we heal over time, and we learn to overcome fear—bit by tiny bit.  Our pets are so pure of spirit, have often done nothing to hurt or disappoint us and have consistently been loving and loyal—they can represent the best of ourselves, and the most authentic; their passing can be particularly piercing, and yet in having life-cycles shorter than our own, our pets teach us to attach, lose, heal and come to accept that a fully lived dog, cat, guinea pig, fish or hermit crab life is simply shorter than our typical human life.  Amongst the many things animals can teach us includes how to deal with death as a natural part of life.  While this is not a fun lesson, it is a deep and useful one; a quiet way of helping us live our own animal lives.

Young children may benefit from writing cards or letters to a pet that has died, but as kids mature, sometimes there is little to do but to allow space for a full range of feelings.  It is important in our anti-depressant era to keep in mind that being sad, angry, tearful, irritable and melancholy for some length of time is not becoming “depressed,” but rather is a normal response to the death of someone close to us, human or animal.  It’s when we block our natural mourning process that we risk becoming entrenched in our melancholy.

So, let’s dedicate today to all those parents who are suffering a sense of loss, and/or those struggling to contain the overflowing feelings of loss in the children they love.  As a world, we must make a collective vessel—an imaginal bowl that can hold the dark and messy angst, (which may one day be transformed to spirit gold—compassion and depth of soul) on behalf of all our children—those under our roofs and those seemingly forgotten, out of sight, ailing, suffering or grieving and not believing that anyone puts a kind hand on their shoulder or cares to kiss away a tear… even if it’s across the ether.

Namaste, Bruce

p.s. au revoir Frankie & Katie, I hope you’re able to send love to those who love and miss you… and maybe to kids you didn’t know but who could use the love

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3 Responses to “Helping kids say farewell to pets”

  1. BigLittleWolf Says:

    Our dog of 13 years passed away just over a month ago. She had been slowing down, considerably. She had a good walk with my 16-year old, ate, drank, plopped down on my floor for a few hours while I wrote in the evening, as usual. Then she went to sleep in the living room when I went to bed at midnight. We found her the next morning. It was pretty awful.

    There’ve been many losses in my life. My sons haven’t known death yet, thankfully. My elder flew the nest the end of August. I was just adjusting to that. The dog over the past few years has become my constant companion – happy, quiet, at my side as I wrote. I thought my son would be devastated. We cried together; he hadn’t cried in years. He seems okay. His life is full, he’s charging ahead. And I find that I am still listening for the sound of her feet on the hardwood floors. I keep looking for her in the house. I trim meat and go to put it in a dish for her.

    I thought empty nest and her passing might coincide, but I hoped we’d have longer. I’m finding it slow going to get past this loss. It brings all the other losses back, palpably. But the memories are very sweet, and that my son seems to be accepting of it is a great relief.

  2. marlene Says:

    Bruce,

    Thank you for your wonderful words. I do believe that I was so worried about consoling Ben I wasn’t allowing myself to grieve. We are moving along with wonderful stories and memories and Ben is doing a great job comforting me.

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