I remember bringing Cooper home, a fluffy bundle, crying softly in my lap. Just eight weeks old and weighing less than a half-gallon of milk, he was our first baby. We doted on him, took him for walks, gave him pampering baths. Time passed, and our first “real” baby — and eventually two others — joined the family. Cooper’s walks diminished and his pats became less frequent, but his loyalty never wavered.
Sadly, his health began to deteriorate, more rapidly than we imagined, due to an unfortunate genetic heart condition that eventually afflicts the majority of his breed (King Charles Spaniels). Last month, he passed away unexpectedly in his sleep. He had just turned eight. My husband and I were devastated, but also wondered how we could help our young children understand. Below are tips we found useful, and we would love to hear your thoughts for what has worked with your own children.
Be honest. It may be tempting to talk about the death in vague terms, but it is better to explain in a sensitive manner that the pet has passed. The length of the conversation and amount of detail will vary based on the age of the children. Our children — ages 1, 3 and 5 — understood only the very basic level. Our 5-year-old son had many questions. He seemed most upset by our tears, so we tried to explain why we were so sad. He wondered about his own heart, and our hearts, and whether they were strong. We assured him that our hearts were very strong and he had no reason to worry.
Help your children grieve in their own way. Not everyone goes through the same timeline of grief. Our 3-year-old daughter could not understand the seriousness of what had happened, and would tell everyone (repeatedly) that “Cooper died.” Our 5-year-old would ask if we were still sad each day, and he would be sad or happy accordingly. Talk to your children and check in, even if they do not seem upset.
Memorialize your pet. We took Cooper to the Emergency Animal Clinic on north Scottsdale Road, and they were wonderful. We created two commemorative paw prints for both of the older children, as a keepsake and memo
ry for them to have forever. We have heard of other families holding memorials for their children’s pet fish, or saying special prayers for their animals. Do whatever seems natural for you and your family.
I found many resources online, and a friend recommended Maria Shriver’s book, “What’s Heaven?” The site RainbowBridge also had many age-appropriate, useful tips. Do you have any other suggestions for helping families cope with the loss of a pet?