Almost a year ago, we lost our 12-year-old black pug, Willy.
We knew he was on his last legs, but his death was sudden and unexpected. My husband and I were out of the country, but our 10-year-old daughter and my mother were there when Willy collapsed and died.
Because Willy was old and suffered from diminishing health, we'd had the opportunity to talk about how much we loved Willy, how hard his passing would be, how we'd miss him and what we would do when he'd passed, including the notion of one day getting another dog.
Preparation beforehand didn't make the passing easy, but it at least gave our daughter, Reagan, a foundation for support in the wake of the sudden loss. Most important, it also prepared her to talk with the family about what had occurred.
The loss of a beloved dog, cat or other pet is traumatic for people of any age. For children, experiencing the death of a pet can be especially painful. Not only are they losing a close companion or best friend, it's likely the first time they are encountering loss and the finality of death.
For the child, recovery after a loss can be difficult to manage; the child may remember little to no time without the pet having been there. Life without their beloved critter is likely to look and feel vastly different from what they've experienced before.
There's no one-size-fits-all way to help a child cope with and grieve the loss of a pet. Certain approaches, however, foster an ability to cope and to fully grieve. Both of those are important steps for coming to terms with — and, when the time is right, moving forward from — the loss of one we love. As an animal trainer and mom, I want to share three ways I've found to help a child better deal with the loss of a pet.
Even before losing Willy and, before him, our other pug, Bruce, we had discussed the potential passing of a pet or person through thought-provoking books and movies that dealt with the notion of death. This offered us opportunities to talk about death, saying goodbye and moving forward when a loved one dies. For Reagan, this foundation helped her when it happened.
Reflecting on the favorite things Willy had done recently also helped Reagan through her grief. It was important for her to hear that Willy felt little pain and that up until the final moment, he was happy and with some of his favorite people, including her. Willy knew he was loved and felt that love up until the very end. To Reagan, that was a comforting fact in her loss.
Finally, a lasting legacy of the pet's love is something the child can go to for comfort. For Reagan, writing notes to and drawing pictures of her dogs after their passing (Bruce died in 2015) were ties to the lasting love she felt for her late pets.
She also appreciated having photos and a painting of each pug that serve as reminders of them. We also gave her a special paw print charm that says, "Always with you."
When asked what helped her cope the most, Reagan says, "I'm still not over it."
I completely agree. I don't think anyone ever "gets over"the loss of their pet. But what's important is learning to deal with the new normal while remembering the love.