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Norwich Bulletin - 9/12/2010

How To Cope With the Loss of a Friend

Losing a beloved pet is a terrible experience for everyone in the family. Adults and children understand things differently, and depending on the age of the mourner, is the extent of the grieving process. Here are some tips for all ages.

Many times your kids have a special relationship with the family pet. A child’s best animal friend seems to understand them better than their human parents and they know to be gentle and patient. They will let their human siblings dress them in doll’s clothes, give them a bubble bath or take a baby carriage ride. So the attachments made between your pet and your child is very real and very strong and when a pet dies, it is extremely difficult for young children to even grasp what death means, much less cope with the fact that it has happened to their special pet.

There are several things a parent can do to help a child understand and worth through a type of grieving process. Remember this is probably the first time the child has been exposed to death and it is important to encourage the children to talk about the pet and to talk about what they are feeling. Sadness is a part of life and you should not try to take that away, but rather, help them through it. Don’t lie and don’t use phrases like “he went away” of “we put her to sleep.”

Those are very confusing terms and children are very literal. You may have your child develop a fear of going to sleep because if they do, they might not wake up. Or if they believe that their pet just got up and left, they will either feel it was there fault or ask why their pet would go away when they were such good friends, and perhaps, blame you. So explain death – use simple terms like, “He was very sick and could not get well and he died. He cannot come back again.” Then it is time to help your children grieve.

You can memorialize your pet by putting together a collage of pictures that you have taken over the years, or put together a scrapbook. You can paint your cat’s name on a rock and place it in the garden or under a tree. You should encourage talk about your pet as it allows your child to express feelings and ask questions.

And if you do not know the answer to a particular question, say you don’t. It will actually be comforting for your child to know that you are also upset by the pet’s death and you don’t understand everything either. Definitely share some funny stories and favorite times about being with your pet – there should be laughter among the tears.

You, too, may need to go through your own grieving and find ways to memorialize your pet. Many of us grieve for our pet as we would grieve over the loss of a human family member. Almost everyone will grieve, but like children, they will grieve differently. Doing something special helps alleviate the pain of loss and make your pet’s memory permanent beyond the boundaries of his life.

When I lose a pet, I write a column about him or her. I tell the story and express my pain and it is truly a healing experience that allows me to start feeling better. If words can help you, then write your story and if your family doesn’t understand your grief, send your story to me and I will even share them with my readers. This is a way to memorialize if you like to write. You can also write a poem or an essay or, keep a private journal if you are the type of person who likes to grieve in privacy. There is no wrong or right in the grieving process.

There are other ways to honor your pet. You can write a letter to your pet – sometimes just being able to express what you feel can be helpful. You can make a contribution to an animal rescue organization in your pet’s name. You can plant a tree and put a memorial statue or stone in the garden.

If you paint or sketch, celebrate your pet’s life on canvas. I have special urns for the ashes of both Milo and Merlot as one held my heart and the other my soul, and I choose to keep them close to me always. But whatever is right for you and your family, do not make excuses to people who do not understand – and never apologize for grieving for the one friend who always accepted you for who you are and always loved you.

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