Dear Dr. Debbie,
Our first dog was with us before the children. He died a few months back after a long and adventurous life. Our 10-year-old and 8-year-old coped pretty well. They understood that he had been deteriorating for a while. They even explained to their friends about “dog years” by multiplying by seven to explain his symptoms of advancing age. Unfortunately, the puppy we picked out a week ago quickly went from bad to worse from Parvo. The vet euthanized him this morning. What logic can we bring to this loss?
Too Soon Again
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The loss of a pet, even for such a short time, reminds us that life is precious and that death is inevitable. This is heavy material at any age. You can expect your children to have lots of questions about what happened and what could have possibly been done to avoid this tragedy. Educate yourself about Parvo – a highly contagious virus that can live in on an inanimate surface for a year! – so you can explain it to them. And think about the best ways to face this event as a family.
The best way to tell children about the death of a pet, and to deal with the ensuing grief, is to be honest. Share the timeline of the puppy’s week as you experienced it. Give the medical explanation in terms the children will understand. Use a few grown-up words – infection, contagious, immune system – and steer clear of confusing euphemisms such as “went to sleep.” You can review this new vocabulary in future conversations as the children grow in their abilities to understand. Also share your feelings and encourage your children to do the same. You may feel disappointed, angry, sad, anxious, and other emotions as will they. Stating a feeling is a healthy way to begin to cope and sets a good example for the children. On the other hand, if you are overwhelmed by this experience, please share stronger feelings with another adult so you can be the adult your children need at this time. It’s okay to tell your children, “This makes me very sad,” but it’s not okay for them to hear you bellowing your opinions about a professional’s incompetence.
Unless your children are veterinarians or grief counselors in training, you will need to convey what happened and what will happen in layman’s terms. Illustrations can help. Support your discussions with picture books designed to help children understand death and grief. These books can be great discussion starters since a common first reaction to a death is disbelief and denial. Your child may refuse to talk about the death of the puppy, hoping you are wrong about this information. You may need to repeat, “He can’t come back. He died.” a few times. Leave a book or two out for the reluctant child to flip through on his own.
The second stage of grief is anger. Children may hold the adults responsible. You may hold yourself, or the person who sold you the puppy, or the vet who treated him, responsible. Find a way to forgive. Even with the latest research, interventions can be very costly and only 80-95% effective. Allow your children to express their anger and let them know that anger is what we feel when things don’t happen the way we think they should.
The next stage of grief is bargaining or second guessing: “If only I had recognized symptoms sooner.” Or, “If only we had chosen a different seller/different vet.” Children may wonder if they may have been too rough on the puppy or too selfish when the puppy needed your attention.
Sadness or depression are next. This may be expressed in different ways and can take days, months or longer to subside. Children may be distracted at school, aggressive with friends, withdrawn and quiet, or they may try to escape their feelings by getting engrossed in hobbies and projects. Adults, too, will find that sadness causes varying behaviors in themselves. Be gentle with each other and with yourself.
It is helpful to come to terms with a death through rituals that mark the occasion with solemnity and compassion. Talk with the children about what they would like to do. Feel free to lead this process with your own ideas of what will help your family at this time. One of the benefits of pet ownership is that it gives children practice with grieving. You can guide them with choosing such practices as writing a eulogy, displaying a photo, tucking away a remembrance – a collar or a toy, planting a tree or a flower patch, or finding a way to help other animals perhaps with a donation to further medical research on Parvo. Since our practices about death are influenced by religious beliefs, include some spiritual discussions or practices that would fit in.
Children thrive on routine and predictability. The death of a pet can shake their sense of security. The second such death within a few months’ time makes it more shocking, even if only for a little while. This is not a good time for parents to take on outside responsibilities, nor for children to be expected to take on new challenges. Instead, focus on keeping the family functioning at its basic level. Help everyone to keep up their strength with good food, sleep, and exercise. Grief work is hard work.
My sincere condolences to you and the family on both recent losses.
Deborah Wood is a child development specialist in Annapolis. She has a doctorate in Human Development from the University of Maryland at College Park and is founding director of the Chesapeake Children’s Museum. Long-time fans and new readers can find many of her “Understanding Children” columns archived on the Chesapeake Family Magazine website. You can find her online at drdebbiewood.com.
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What do you think? Email your comments or questions to Dr. Debbie at editor[at]chesapeakefamily.com.