National Edition

Death of a pal: Navigating the loss of a beloved animal

Published: Saturday, July 13 2013 11:50 p.m. MDT

Mia Laurenti and her dog, Morgan. When Morgan's cancer spread, her family had to make decisions about her care and also about what to tell Mia, who had never known life without the dog.

Laurenti family photo

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."

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