CHARLOTTE, N.C. — Treatment had done as much as it could for Morgan and the cancer had spread. So the night before the yellow labrador was scheduled for her final trip to the vet, Helene Laurenti's daughter Mia took an ink imprint of Morgan's paw, then cuddled up to read her friend a story.
Afterward, she filled a bowl with dog food and put it, oddly enough, in the dishwasher. The dog always loved to climb in and try to eat things. This once, mom and daughter agreed, it would be all right for Morgan to graze there.
The dog was 11, the girl 7. Mia knew no life before Morgan.
Laurenti was honest about what was happening to Morgan and what would happen later — up to the cremation, that is. That seemed to disturb the little girl, so her mom told her when a dog goes to heaven, pixie dust falls to the ground and the vet collects it and gives it to the dog's owners in a special box.
Laurenti, a licensed psychologist who works with kids' grief, is a mom first. She was using her work expertise to navigate a common emotional minefield that feels like uncharted territory. Americans love animals; they have more than 300 million household pets — from parakeets to turtles, cats to guinea pigs, iguanas to dogs.
Loving a pet is often a child's first attempt to nurture and provide, the animal's death a first and wrenching loss. It is both an emotionally powerful event and a learning experience that can help frame how children understand relationships, religious beliefs and the power of love, experts say.
Let grief be
The rocky road through a child's grief is paved with good intentions, but parents' efforts often misfire, said Russell Friedman, director of The Grief Recovery Institute Educational Foundation in Sherman Oaks, Calif. He's co-authored books on children and grief.
Parents think they're comforting children when they tell them not to feel bad. "It's absurd. Children and pets give each other unconditional love. There's a purity to it, and, of course, a child feels sad. Even telling a child the dog is in a better place, the kid is still heartbroken," he said. "The most confusing thing to a child is being told not to feel sad when he is sad. It's dangerous and wrong."
Parents often rush to replace. "'On Saturday, we'll get a new dog.' Well, you can get a dog, but each relationship and personality is unique. You can't replace it," he said. The strategy may backfire. Erik may never take to that new dog. He wants his already-friend back.
"Give everyone a chance to grieve," counsels Janet Zimmerman, a licensed clinical social worker and bereavement expert from Plainview, N.Y. If the pet dies during the school term, she said, tell the teacher, who can also be sympathetic. Give lots of hugs and kisses and point out it will hurt for a while, but there are things one can do to help ease the pain.
"Discuss death and dying and grief honestly and say it's part of life," Zimmerman said. "Animals and people die."
The conversation can reflect religious beliefs. "It's part of God's plan," you might say, or "It's how nature works. We have to make peace with it. It is hard for everybody when something we love dies."
Zimmerman learned responsibility and respect for animals from a golden retriever named Cinnamon. "No matter what I did, that dog was thrilled to see me. That's hard to replace in any human." She was more devastated than she expected when the dog died.
Laurenti said it's vital for parents to talk about what's happening to a pet, if there's time. "Be honest. No cover stories or lies. But do it in an age-appropriate way."
Do not say "Princess is sleeping" or "King is taking a trip." Euphemisms cause confusion, said Michele Pich, veterinary grief counselor at the Pennsylvania School of Veterinary Medicine in Philadelphia. Children wait for a pet to wake up or come home. They wonder if they somehow caused the dog to leave.
"Children understand in a more concrete way," Pich said. "Say things in the way that will cause the least pain possible, but so they can understand what actually happened."
Parents should not hide their grief, Friedman said. "You can say and act how you feel. Children watch for cues and parents send confusing signals.... Tell the truth about feelings and the child can follow."
Parents may need alone time to grieve themselves, said Pich, "but it's also important to model healthy grieving habits. If kids see parents are grieving, it can open lines of communication between them."
It doesn't help to say time will heal the wound, Friedman said. "Time can't heal an emotional wound any more than time can put air back in a flat tire."
You promote healing by dealing with grief and taking steps to mend the broken heart. Friedman explains it by projecting what he'll do when Baxter, a Hungarian Vizsla he describes as "my heart," inevitably dies.
"He's 9 and I will be devastated. I tell my wife almost everything. But who gets every single ounce of my truth? My dog."
Friedman will talk about Baxter and his sorrow to those with whom he's closest. He will remember and laugh and cry and be honest. He won't consider replacing the dog until he's grieved and adapted to that specific loss.
The death of a pet offers life lessons, Pich said, such as unconditional love. "You take care of animals through good and bad, whether they misbehave or don't, and they just love you no matter what. That's especially important for a child. No matter what happened on the playground, that animal loves you when you get home."
"It's normal to be sad, to cry, to have feelings come up out of the blue," Laurenti said. It also builds resilience. "One of the things you're ultimately giving your kid is knowing she survived a loved one's death. It's a life lesson; we all experience that at some point."
People attach strongly to different creatures. Pich has seen people grieve deeply over rabbits or turtles. It's harder and takes longer to bond with a lizard than a cat; that bond is sometimes deeper, an "earned" bond, she said.
Pich runs grief-support groups for people who are in the process of losing or have lost a favorite pet. She calls the pre-loss group the Cleo group for the terrier mix who brightened her life for 13.5 years, the last two despite cancer.
On a cold, blue-sky day in Salt Lake City, four little girls sat in a circle and gently passed around a dead hamster, cradled on the lap of a small stuffed bear. As each girl held Blossom, the rodent, she said something she liked about the creature. The hamster, it turned out, was beautiful and smart and liked to try to sneak out of her cage. She ran all night on her wheel and dived under the bedding in her cage if the cat passed — a sign of cleverness, they agreed.
Such rituals, from pet funerals to parties, are a good thing, Laurenti and Pich said. It helps say goodbye. So is allowing a child to make decisions, where possible. When Mia took Morgan's paw print and set up her dishwasher buffet, it didn't change the dog's future, but it gave the child a feeling of control.
"It helps children to do something concrete," said Zimmerman. "Put together a photo tribute or paint a picture of the animal. If they want, make a picture of how they're feeling."
"The funeral is a healthy way to express grief," said Pich. "It acknowledges they were real and worth grieving."
Families have choice in how they remember an animal, Pich said. Some people have a burial or memorial ceremony, then or later. She knows families that took a beloved pet's ashes to a vacation spot they enjoyed.
"It doesn't really matter where you do it or what you do, but it can be helpful for adults or kids," said Pich. "It's a way to bond as a family over this grief. It can help in dealing with human loss."6 comments on this story
She's seen families plant a tree or create a small memorial fund for the local animal shelter. Some donate toys on a pet's birthday.
Judith Viorst captures such a moment in the children's book "The Tenth Good Thing About Barney." A little boy recalls talking to his dad as they dig a grave. His dad says things change in the ground.
"'He’ll change until he’s part of the ground in the garden.'
"'And then,' I asked, 'will he help to make flowers and leaves?'
"'He will,' said my father. 'He’ll help grow the flowers and he’ll help grow that tree and some grass. You know, that’s a pretty nice job for cat.'”
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