Tuesday, January 3, 2012

How to talk to your children about the death of a pet...

Our winter break got off to a fabulous start, with the kids and I super excited about all the fun adventures we were going to experience on our days off together.

Unfortunately, our plans came to a screeching halt with the sudden, unexpected death of our beloved cat, Ivy, on Christmas eve morning.


Granted, she was almost 12 years old but she appeared to be a happy and healthy cat.  Due to the extremely cold weather, she had been staying indoors mostly for the last few weeks, enjoying being cuddled by the kids and spending time our family.

The evening before she died, the kids kissed her goodnight, as they always did.  And when I went to sleep, she was snoring at the edge of the bed, perfectly content.

I heard her leave the room somewhere around 5:45 am and then I heard a loud hissing sound downstairs, as if maybe she found one of the kittens eating her food.

Shortly after, Tim came into the room and said, "Ivy just died."

He wasn't sure exactly what had happened but when he heard her hissing, he turned on the light just in time to see her fall over on the floor.  Startled, he attempted to give her CPR but her death was quick and he was unable to do anything.  All we could assume was that she must have had a heart attack.

After placing her body on a blanket and putting her near the garage door, we both went back to bed, though neither of us could sleep.  We were heartbroken, having just lost a cherished member of our family.  And heartsick, knowing we would have to tell the kids, especially on Christmas eve day of all days.

Neither Tim nor I had a clue how to talk to the kids about Ivy's death so I googled the topic but found nothing helpful.

So we just followed our hearts and prayed for guidance, as we informed our young children about the death of their loving pet, who had been part of our family for their entire lives.

Here's what we found was helpful for our family:


*  Be honest but avoid using phrases like "she went to sleep" or "her body was tired".  We didn't want the kids to be afraid to go to sleep and we certainly didn't want them to fear they might die when their bodies feel tired.

What we did tell them was that she had lived a long, happy life and it was her time to go.  She had the best life that a cat could have, filled with joy and love.

And now, she was at Rainbow Bridge, with our bunnies who had died years ago and with Grandpa's dog, Winston.  She wasn't lonely, sad or scared.  Just happy and carefree.

*  Let them express their emotions, however they see fit.  They may burst into tears immediately, like Cole did, or they may look to one another to see how they should react, which is what the little twins did since they were unsure of how to react.

They may cry off and on over the next few days or they may not.  The important thing is to allow them to express their emotions freely and comfort them.

Don't tell them to "get over it already" or to stop being a cry-baby.  The only way to get over a loss is to go through the natural grieving process and everyone's way of handling their grief is different.

Respect your child's way of handling his/her grief.

* Give them the choice of seeing the pet one last time (if circumstances allow, of course).  We couldn't decide if it would be more harmful for them to see Ivy to say goodbye or if they were better off just remembering her the way they saw her last.  Ultimately, we decided to give them the option because we thought it would seem more "real and permanent" to them if they made the choice for themselves.

When they decided they did want to see her one last time, we prepared them by saying, "She won't look the way she did last night when you said goodnight to her.  She'll be very still and she won't react to your touch.  And her body may not feel warm when you touch her."

* Be prepared for them to talk about death and ask a lot of questions.  And I mean, endless questions about heaven, God, death...the list goes on.

Be honest with your kids about what you believe happens to us after death.  If you honestly don't know what you believe, it's okay to say "Honey, I don't really know."  Just don't lie to them or sugarcoat it but do be gentle and explain it in child-friendly terms.

We told our kids that while Ivy's body was still here with us, her spirit left her body immediately and went to Rainbow Bridge.  A person's and animal's spirit is what makes them...well, THEM.  

*  Be prepared for them to ask for another pet, almost immediately.  They may or may not ask for a new pet but if your kids are anything like our kids, they may think going out and getting another pet who looks exactly like the lost pet will make them feel better and/or replace the lost pet.

We told our kids that there was no other animal in the world who would be exactly like Ivy, even if we were to find another cat who looked just like her.  No one is replaceable.

And while it was true that getting a new pet might make them feel better, it would only be a temporary feeling.  The best way for them to recover from their grief is to feel it and work through it.

*  Tell friends and family it's okay to talk about the pet in front of the children.  Our family members wanted to avoid talking about Ivy because they didn't want the kids to feel sad, especially on Christmas day.

But we told them we were encouraging the kids to talk openly about her...you can't sweep death under the carpet and we didn't want the kids to feel like they couldn't talk about it whenever they wished to.

*  Plant a memorial stone or plaque somewhere in your yard so the kids have a special place to go when they feel sad or want to "visit" the pet.  We chose to have Ivy cremated and have her ashes scattered in a field by our vet's office but one of her favorite places in the yard was under our peach tree.  It was always a sure bet that that's where we'd find her when she was outdoors...under the peach tree, enjoying the shade and the cool dirt.  When spring comes around, we plan to put a plaque under the tree with Ivy's picture on it, in her honor.

Our beloved Ivy, rest in peace
  January 2000 - December 2011


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27 comments:

Sadia said...

Helene, I'm so sorry for your loss. I'm glad that you decided to talk to your kids up front and honestly about Ivy's passing. My in-laws chose to tell my husband that his dog had retired to a farm when he died, and he was years older before he had the opportunity to grieve his death.

I'm dealing with something similar at the moment. A close friend recently learning that his dog's cancer has metastasized to her lungs. She has 1-2 months. My girls are very fond of the dog, and I'm trying to figure out how to talk to them. We're too far to say goodbye in person.

Lisa @ Two Bears Farm said...

I'm so sorry to hear about Ivy. :-(

Pierce still talks about our pets that have died, and says he misses them sometimes. We just try to keep open communication with him.

Heather said...

I'm sorry for your loss. You guys handled it wonderfully with the kids.

Jenny said...

I'm so sorry for your loss. You all handled it really well with the kids. I know when we lost our first cat, I was so scared about how Abby would react. She did very well.

I'm sorry that Tim had to find Ivy dead. That must have been really hard on him.

Lisa said...

My favorite dog of all time died unexpectedly and too soon (he wasn't even 6) when I was 7 months pregnant with PJ. On our kitchen floor. I was devastated. It's such a hard thing.

I think you handled it well. I am so sorry for the loss of your pet. :(

Jen said...

I am so sorry for this loss but I can totally relate. Our cat Charlie just left one day and never came back. It was hard to talk to the kids and see them be sad but loss is a part of life. They still talk about Charlie but are excited to get kittens in the spring.

Nezzy said...

Oh sweetie, I can only imagine how hard it was for you to lose this member of your family and break it to your kiddos.

Seems livin' on a farm where death is a natural and unnatural common experience for our children, this topic is kinda understood.

I totally agree with you. Be honest, kids can tell when your not.

God bless you and I hope your household will feel peace soon.

Sara @ Domestically Challenged said...

I am sorry, losing a pet is hard on kids and parents. YOu handled it well.

irishtwinsmommababybook said...

I'm so sorry about the loss of Ivy. You two are such great parents in the way you reacted and how you ar supporting your kids.

Eva Gallant said...

So sorry you lost your cat, but it sounds like she had a good, long life and you handled her passing well.

Emmy said...

Sounds like you handled it very well. And now if someone googles it- hopefully they will find your post with good advice.

Sorry this happened right around Christmas.

Merri Ann said...

I'm so sorry about Ivy. You are the 3rd person who I know who lost a pet over the Christmas break.

Our 15 year old dog finally had to be put to sleep on the 17th. We were lucky that we found a vet who would do it in our home. We decided that I would take the children out and my husband would stay with him at home while the vet was there.

We had a heck of a time trying to decide how approach the subject with the kids. This was not an unexpected event ... we had been prepping them for months that he was very ill.

In the end, we took the advice of a friend ... we told the kids that when we left he got very sick and daddy had to take him to the vet, but he died on the way there.

We thought it would be easier not to have to explain why we had to choose to end his life on a particular day... the issues you brought up about "sleep" etc. are just things they don't have the ability to understand at 5 and 6 years old.

Anyway, again, I'm so sorry for your loss.

Karen and Gerard said...

So sorry to hear you cat died. I think you handled it very well and like your suggestions as to what to tell the kids. That was a strange way to go though--at least she didn't suffer long.

Shari said...

I'm so sorry for your loss. There's truly nothing like the loss of a pet and it looks like you've done a marvelous job with your kids despite your grief. We'll say an extra prayer tonight for you and your family!

Missy said...

I think you handled it beautifully. But that dammed Rainbow Bridge - seriously - I don't know if there will ever come a day I can read it without bawling. So sorry for your loss.

Tamika said...

Oh - huge huge hugs to your whole family. We lost our beloved 16yr old kitty just over a year ago - and each and everything you listed is exactly what we did. Its never easy - but it can be done.

Huge hugs as you get used to your different life....

Kimberly said...

I am so sorry.
Losing a pet can be so hard. I never even thought about what it can do to our kids.
Sending healing hugs.

Kakunaa said...

I am so sorry sweetie. I think you did an amazing job of handling it. And given the fact that you often joke about the things you do as a parent that won't win you mother of the year, you have just demonstrated why you will. *hugs*

Jennifer said...

I'm so, so sorry for your loss.

Our beloved Shepherd Mitzi died almost 2 years ago now and the pain is still there. We told our daughter that she went to be with Jesus and she was playing with Grandpap's parakeet.

After we had her cremated, we went to Build-A-Bear and had her ashes put inside a stuffed bear that I now keep in a special spot in our bedroom next to her leash and the last photo we took of her. Every once in awhile, I still catch my daughter sitting in there talking to her.....

Donna said...

Helene - I think you guys handled that beautifully!!! What wonderful words of advice! Seriously, it's worth printing this out and having it handy for any parent to be prepared. You covered everything!

Hope you and the kids (and Tim) are doing well, still grieving, I'm sure.

((hugs)) - you are one rockin momma!

Kmama said...

I'm so sorry for your loss. We had to put our dog down last year, right before Christmas, after she suddenly became very sick. It was heart wrenching for us to lose her.

This is such a great post, with amazing advice. I totally agree with everything you posted here.

Barbara said...

I am so sorry for your loss. I think you handled the situation with amazing grace.

Natalie said...

I hate to hear you lost a pet so close to Christmas. These are some great tips...b/c I dread the day our two dogs pass away. It sounds like you handled it the best you could!

Samantha said...

Always hard to lose a pet. Two years ago, our family dog fell into the pool in drowned. I was grown, married and had a two year old, but that didn't mean that I didn't cry. Thankfully, we don't have any pets yet...but when we do, and we have to experience the loss of a pet...I plan to be honest. It's so sad though.

Twinpossible said...

Attachment to a family pet is such a strong thing. They ARE part of the family. I am so sorry for the loss. I have known that feeling before and it's an awful one.

I have had to explain the death of human beings, but never animals yet, with my 3 youngest. I believe in honesty, and since I do believe there's a God & a heaven and hell, I tell them, all children, and good people, and animals are innocent, God takes them up to live with them because it was their time, but they are happy, and life is so wonderful in the beautiful place that they now reside in. There's no pain or fear, and happiness forever, and ever, and ever.

I also say that when we die we WILL see that person or pet again and we will never have to leave them. I know those thoughts have brought me peace many a time.

I have even told my children (6+) that if anything ever happened to mommy, please don't live in sadness. I'll be around you watching you, helping you. I'll be in the stars you see, and in the kisses you get goodnight. I'll be up with my son and happy, and we WILL see eachother again.

I do this because I don't want to scare them, but because I have never been very hopeful with my health, and I'm accident prone, just in case, I think it's best to prepare kids. My 6 year old is VERY mature. My husband wasn't thrilled I did that, but I felt that if I was gone tomorrow...I did the best thing for them. I have no regrets. I want them to believe I am going to still be there in spirit and we'll reunite, but then say..don't get sad because I'm not planning on leaving anytime soon.

It's a hard talk and I think you did great. It was a terrible time of year for this, of all times. Never is there a good one. I took in a cat with a heart condition and had her for 5 years and one day found her lying behind the fridge dead. Horrible. Then I had a rabbit that had a heart attack. I rushed her to the Vet and they did what they could but it didn't work. It was congential. Losing my 2 dogs of over 16 years was the hardest. BOTH happened within 1 year. The other was so depressed after the loss. I wonder if that was it or old age? Both were mutts.

My heartfelt hugs go out to you and your family.

Love, Shelly

http://www.twinpossible.com/blog

Sela Toki said...

So sad Helene. I know how it feels to loose a beloved pet. We lost our Akita, Sinchee two years ago. We still miss that dog dearly even to this day. He's buried in our back yard with a small tombstone. Kids still talk about him as if he's still alive. We all balled like crazy when he died. He was a member of the family like your cat Ivy.

What a way to start out the new year. Again, so sad for your loss.

GAMZu said...

I'm so sorry for the loss of Ivy. :(
We lost our hamster a year ago. He was sick at the end of his life and I was preparing the kids for his death. We took care of him together, bathed him a few times a day because he was too weak to practice proper bathroom skills. They cried initially when they realized they'd never hold him or see him again. But when he actually died, they were expecting it and reacted just fine. (I guess it made me a little sad to see them not reacting emotionally.)

I told them that to honor his memory we will feed his food to the birds- have other creatures benefit from our hamster. My son who was 6 replied, "Why should we try to remember him? He's dead." Harsh. I guess they haven't figured out that memories still live.

Tonight this hits close to home as well, as our cat went out and just never returned. He's been gone 10 hours now. It's the middle of a freezing night, and he's never gone for more than 2-3 hours. Hoping I won't need to have a pet-loss talk with my kids about this. :(

I figure that if the children are alive when my husband gets home at the end of the day, I've done my job.

----Roseanne Barr



 
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