Honesty Is The Best Policy In Helping Children Grieve After A Pet Dies

Honesty is the best policy in helping children grieve after a pet dies

Saturday, July 21, 2007

Dallas writer Bill Cochran was well into adulthood when he experienced the loss of his first pet: a 2-year-old golden retriever named Mo who died from "doggy leukemia." But being an adult didn't help ease the pain.

"I got hysterical and started sobbing uncontrollably," said Cochran, now 40. "I never anticipated such a strong reaction."

The former Palo Alto resident also never suspected that his desire to remember Mo would plant the seed for a children's book. Published in the spring to critical acclaim, "The Forever Dog" is a compassionate tale about a little boy grieving over the loss of his best friend, a mutt named Corky. The book is a sensitive portrayal of a child's first encounter with grief and death. How this grief is handled, experts say, can help determine how a child copes with bereavement as an adult.

"With support, let children cry and discover strengths in themselves," said Betty Carmack, a professor at the University of San Francisco School of Nursing, and author of "Grieving the Death of a Pet." "This teaches them at a young age that they can love someone or something that dies, and they can get through it and love again."

Answer questions truthfully. Skip the sugar-coated euphemisms (Muffin went to sleep) or white lies (Rusty ran away). They can inadvertently create other problems, such as fear of going to bed or feelings of abandonment. Carmack, who is also a professional pet loss counselor at the San Francisco Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals, said adults at her support group frequently recall, with hurt and resentment, how they were lied to as children.

Do not discount or trivialize feelings. Never say it was "only a dog" or "get over it." Pets play an important role in a child's life. "A pet is their protector, special friend, confidant and source of comfort," Carmack said. "The child doesn't worry about being laughed at by their pets. For children, pets can be like siblings, an ever-present playmate. If there's tension or conflict in the family, the pet is frequently there to provide continuity and comfort. Maybe the child tells things to the pet that they couldn't say to a person."

Then suddenly, their friend is gone. Their level of cognitive development may not allow children to articulate their grief, but their feelings are still very real.

Up to age 2, children have no real concept of death, but they can sense tension. Parents should offer reassurance by trying to keep routines as normal as possible. From 2 to 5, children understand that a pet's loss is significant, but they can't comprehend the concept of permanence. Instead, they consider the absence reversible and temporary.

At this age, experts suggest being as factual as possible. Use analogies such as "Remember when your toy broke and it couldn't be fixed? Well the doctor couldn't fix Sparky and he won't be with us anymore."

Around ages 6 to 9, children comprehend death, but may avoid dealing with their feelings. Palo Alto grief counselor Bonnie Goodman said they may even regress to younger behaviors such as bed-wetting, thumb sucking or tantrums.

"At this age, children might believe that they were the cause of the death," she said. "It's important for adults to reassure them that they are not responsible."

Older children start understanding the permanence of death and should be encouraged to express their feelings. Parents should also share their own sadness. Grieving and crying in front of the child validates these emotions as healthy and normal, whereas the absence of grief could actually be interpreted as lack of interest or apathy.

Bottom line: Always tell the truth. Talk to the child at his or her level. When a pet grows old or becomes ill, involve the child in the decision-making process. Perhaps even schedule a meeting with your veterinarian to help explain why the animal isn't feeling well. Alert other adults in the child's life, such as teachers or sitters, so the child receives consistent messages. But also avoid complicated answers or volunteering more than the child might want to know.

"Too much information can be overwhelming and make the grieving process more difficult," Goodman said. She also cautions against getting another pet too soon.

"Let children work through their grieving process. If parents do get another pet immediately, they might want to avoid the same breed or color. Otherwise, a younger child might expect the same behaviors from the new animal, and be disappointed." Adds Carmack: "Getting a new pet too soon may also send the message that relationships can be replaced or that it's not OK to grieve for the old pet."

Instead, as a family, discuss how long to wait while stressing that the new animal will never replace the one that died. Finally, urge children to talk. Have them express their feelings through art projects, poetry, songs or playacting with stuffed animals or dolls. Ask about funny stories or good memories. And take photos of child and pet together, now, while the animal is still around.

This is what Cochran encourages at "The Forever Dog" readings. When celebrating his book's launch at a local dog park, he even supplied a dog photographer. "Embrace the memory of your pet, funny quirks and all," he said, remembering his own forever dog. "Those are the things that live on in our hearts."

Ask the vet

This month's guest is Dr. Glen W. Weber of San Ramon Veterinary Hospital, 2480 San Ramon Valley Blvd., San Ramon, (925) 837-0526.

Q: I panic and call my dog's veterinarian for every little symptom, which usually results in a lot of wasted money. When is it really time to call the veterinarian?

A: If you were to call my office, my receptionist would ask several questions and might even defer to me for direction.

However, the final decision to bring in your pet for an exam rests with you. A doctor cannot make a diagnosis over the phone. We have to see the patient and do a physical exam in conjunction with the patient's history to come to any proper conclusion.

It is easy to feel as though you've wasted money when your dog turns out to be fine. But what if things don't turn out OK because you failed to have an examination and obtain a professional opinion? Imagine the expense, your pet's discomfort and your worry and guilt because you didn't act sooner.

Will Rogers once said, "The best doctor in the world is the veterinarian. He can't ask his patient what is the matter -- he's got to just know."


Bill Cochran will read from "The Forever Dog" at 11 a.m. Aug. 4 at Book Passage at the Ferry Building in San Francisco.

Additional recommended reading:

-- "Children and Pet Loss: A Guide for Helping," by Marty Tousley

-- "Pet Loss and Children: Establishing a Healthy Foundation," by Cheri Barton Ross

-- "Saying Goodbye to Your Pet: Children Can Learn to Cope With Pet Loss," by Marge Heegaard

-- "The Fall of Freddie the Leaf," by Leo Buscaglia

-- "The Tenth Good Thing About Barney," by Judith Viorst and Erik Blegvad

-- "When a Child You Love Is Grieving," by Harold Ivan Smith

-- "When a Pet Dies," by Fred Rogers

E-mail freelance writer Eileen Mitchell at [email protected] . Send your pet concern questions to [email protected] with "Ask the Vet" in the guideline, and each month a guest veterinarian will address a different subject. "Ask the Vet" is for informational purposes only. Readers should not act on information seen in this column without seeking professional veterinary advice.


This article appeared on page F - 5 of the San Francisco Chronicle

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