Coming home without my pal, Buddy the dog, to greet me feels lonely and forlorn. Knowing when to say goodbye seemed an impossible task. One day he seemed revived, and the next he could barely go outside to relieve himself. I never would have thought that making the decision to put him down would be so very difficult. Pets are important members of our families. They add life, color, and comfort to our homes. But how do we help our family cope when it’s time to say goodbye to one of our trusted friends? Here are four tips that we found helpful for grieving the loss of our furry friend.
Many times, children spend more time with our pets than anyone else. And often they have limited experience with the realities of death. Therefore, the emptiness they feel in the pet’s absence can seem almost unbearable. Children, in their short lives, may have more significant memories with a pet than most people they have encountered. Stephen Dowshen, MD writes, “Keep in mind that grieving over the loss of a pet, particularly for a child, is similar to grieving over a person. For kids, losing a pet who offered love and companionship can be much harder than losing a distant relative.” Don’t forget that as difficult as the loss may be for you, more than likely your child’s grief is magnified. They don’t have the benefit of years of experience dealing with disappointment and loss.
Talking about your loss and remembering the good times together is a great way to model good grieving and strengthen your family’s relationship with one another. Conversely, ignoring the pain of the situation can often cause feelings of isolation forcing everyone to deal with difficult emotions alone. The pet was loved and we will miss it. Name the pain. Tell stories of great memories and fun pet adventures. It's okay to cry because we loved our pet; it was important to us. Lamenting a loss with your children individually and as a family helps children know their feelings are real and we care for each other as a family. Loss is an opportunity to create a sense of community, and that is a valuable asset for everyone. We are not meant to do life alone, we are better together. Sadly, loss and grief cannot be avoided in this fallen world of ours, but when families weather storms together, a difficult time can be transformed into a time of growth both spiritually and relationally. Remember, they are watching how you tread through life to pattern their reactions in the future. Every moment is a teaching moment because their little eyes are fastened on you as an example.
Grieving can be a beautiful time to model bringing our sorrows to the Lord. Teach your children to go to God with their pain and disappointments. Pray out loud as a family, in a vulnerable way, telling God how you feel about the loss of your pet. Make a point to learn a scripture together that can connect God to your healing process. Here are a few Scriptures modified for children that can encourage your family during this difficult season.
Do a family project in memory of your pet. Make a scrapbook or put together a video with photos and meaningful music. For smaller children you can fill a jar with scraps of paper with happy memories with the pet. When difficult moments of grief come, have the children grab a memory tag. This process can help when other losses come in the future because you are giving them an opportunity to process through the difficulty and extract the good from the situation; a valuable skill which they can implement over and over again.
Finally, remember to give everyone in the family, children and adults alike, the grace and time they need in order to heal from the loss of a pet. Everyone responds differently to difficulties in life. Allow each person in your family to move forward the way that their God-given personality reacts. For some, they may be grumpy, others weepy, some may pull back and isolate themselves, while others want to talk excessively. After all, our job as parents is to help each unique child respond to God’s Word and life’s journey in a way that pleases him, rather than forcing cookie cutter responses.
Rev. Deb Koster