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A Pet’s Funeral — Good Parenting

Dear Dr. Debbie,
How young is too young for a funeral? Our much-loved pet rat is five-years-old and, according to the veterinarian, nearing the end of his life span. My wife and I are wondering if we should plan a funeral with our children, ages 4 and 7 when the time comes.

Last fall, the four-year-old asked her grandfather if the fish he was cleaning, and was about to gut and cook, was going to be okay. She got a simple explanation of the food chain, but the incident reminded us how little she knows about death.

Practical Dad

Dear P.D.,

A pet’s funeral can be a good introduction to death and grieving for a young child. Even a child as young as two-years-old will gain some understanding from the experience. Not to minimize the impending loss of their pet, eventually your children will endure the experience of losing a beloved human. You have an opportunity to address your children’s loss at the present time while helping them prepare for inevitable deaths in their future. Grief, as difficult as it can be, is something that we learn to deal with from experience as well as by the example of those around us.

Plan your funeral around feelings and beliefs.

A multitude of feelings can accompany the grief process. As the pre-eminent grief expert Elizabeth Kubler-Ross explained, emotions can vary during the grieving process, sometimes circling back to a prior stage or skipping one or more stages altogether.

1. Denial: One or both of your children may actively “not hear” that the rat’s life has ended. The news may be countered with evidence to the contrary, as in, “Look, he’s breathing.” Or “He’s just pretending to be asleep.” Even if the death was verified at a veterinarian’s office, your child may argue the pronouncement.

2. Anger: Don’t be surprised if you, the vet, or the rat himself gets blamed for the death. It is normal for someone at this stage of grieving to be irritable and mean.

3. Bargaining: This is a stage of “if only” in which your child may try (in vain) to turn back time with wishful thinking or by second guessing her past actions. She might feel guilty for not spending more time with her pet, or blame herself for not paying close enough attention to the rat’s needs and health.

4. Depression: Deep sadness can be described as an emptiness, a weight, or a disconnection. A child may eat less or comfort herself with food. She may sleep more or sleep fitfully. She may find an escape from reality through books, movies, or video games, or she may want to skip activities she usually enjoys and stare off into space. Expect at least a few days of intermittent bouts of sadness.

5. Acceptance: Acceptance of any particular death may come in stages of its own, even if it was a lengthy and well-lived life. The irreversibility of death is a difficult concept to accept, particularly of a loved one. There is a process of getting used to missing the lost pet (or person) in routines of daily living. Acceptance includes resurgences of sadness about what the pet (or person) who has died will not be able to experience as time goes on.

The topic of death invites discussions of religious beliefs. Decide, even if you’re undecided, what you want your children to have as a spiritual understanding of life and death. Thinking about death can trigger fears about one’s own death or the death of other loved ones. A child may think that death is a punishment by God or evidence of God’s indifference. On the other hand, a strictly biological understanding of death could lead to fears of accidents and illnesses. Even the notion of living to a “ripe old age” can cause anxiety knowing that everyone’s days are numbered. This is a good time to put life and death in their proper place as you wish your children to understand them. Death is an ending. It can make us sad. Life is precious. It can give us immeasurable joy. Be sure to continue your discussions as questions, fears, or misunderstandings arise.

The Funeral
The process of planning and carrying out a funeral presents the physical reality of putting a no longer living body in the ground – a necessary step toward acceptance.
Take emotions into account during the planning process. Obviously, if one or both children are strongly in denial, the plans may need to move ahead without them. Be patient with moments of anger, however displaced the anger may be, knowing that anger may dissipate if you wait a day or two after the death to hold the funeral. As part of the service, family members may wish to express what they most enjoyed about the dearly departed, recalling the rat’s favored foods, clever antics, etc. In this way, each person can acknowledge that they indeed invested themselves in providing good care and enjoyed the emotional rewards of pet ownership. Encourage your children to put their sadness into words. Children’s books on death (listed below) can get the conversation started. Family members might choose to read a passage from one of these books along with poems, songs, and or prayers that effectively express their feelings and beliefs.

As part of working toward acceptance that a unique and irreplaceable life has come to a close, a funeral is the perfect time to honor aspects of this being’s personality, his adventures, etc. This is an important part of planning the beloved cat’s funeral in The Tenth Good Thing About Barney, the classic pet death book by Judith Viorst.

Books your family may find helpful:
Brown, Laurie Krasny & Marc (1998) When Dinosaurs Die
Demos, Corinne (2004) Saying Goodbye to Lula
Kanst, Patricia (2000 & 2018) The Invisible String
Mellonie, Byron & Robert Ingpen (1983) Lifetimes: The Beautiful Way to Explain Death to Children
Rogers, Fred (1998) When a Pet Dies
Rowland, Joanna (2017) The Memory Box
Thomas, Pat (2001) I Miss You: A First Look at Death
Viorst, Judith (1987) The Tenth Good Thing About Barney
Wilhelm, Hans (1988) I’ll Always Love You

Let your children’s needs guide your planning process. Your funeral may take fifteen minutes to plan and be all of five minutes long. A child’s concept of time, you probably know, is very different from an adult’s.

A national expert, Dr. Christina Hibbert reminds us, “if she is old enough to love, she is old enough to experience grief.”

If a child is too upset to attend, so be it. She may be comforted, after some time has passed, to learn how the rest of the family paid due respect to a cherished pet. She’s new to grieving and may need you to do some things for her just yet. Respect her process.

Dr. Debbie


Click here for more parenting advice by Debbie Wood.

What do you think? Email your comments or questions to Dr. Debbie at editor[at]chesapeakefamily.com.

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