The death a pet is sad and difficult, for the whole family. But finding a way to say goodbye to a much-loved pet is often the first step children take towards understanding the concept of death.
Deciding whether or not to become a pet-owning family is a tough one. Helping children through the sadness of losing an animal companion can be even harder. And as for figuring out how to handle the official farewell ? that really does take a bit of getting your head around. But funerals (or celebrations of life, as many prefer to think of them) are an important part of being a caring human being, and it’s important to get the goodbye right.
Funerals, however they are managed, have structure and, because saying goodbye to a pet is unlikely to be a one-off occasion, it can help to establish family traditions around such occasions. That way, children know what to expect each time a pet dies, and will therefore feel more secure during what is often a very emotional time.
As you seek to establish your own family pet-funeral rituals, talk to very young children about funerals for people which you have been to, and what happens at them. If older children have attended these with you, help them recall the event. Mention such things as a beautiful coffin or box for the person (or their ashes) to lie in, pretty flowers (if you have rosemary in your garden, you might like to tell children that it is often taken to funerals because rosemary is for remembrance). Explain that, at a funeral, people sometimes like to tell happy or funny stories about times they spent with the person who has died. Bring in the idea of music and song as a way of helping to say goodbye. Make it clear to children that a funeral is a special ?remembering’ time. It’s not a time to jump around and play and shout. If you explain this gently but firmly, you are helping to create an understanding of the significance of death.
As you spend time with your children, don’t be afraid to talk about practicalities such as ?digging a hole in the ground’ or ?putting Mrs Cat’s body in the freezer until Dad can come to the funeral, too’. If a pet has been disposed of by your vet or someone else, tell children this. Let them know that the animal has already been carefully buried and that it is a ?memorial’ you will be having at home rather than a funeral. Above all, don’t shy away from using helpful vocabulary. In our efforts to avoid anything to do with death and dying, we have now modified language to such an extent that children are often left confused by its meaning. Why say ?passed on’ or ?gone away’ when what you actually mean is ?died’? Children will not be upset by plain or descriptive language. In fact, having access to it will help them give voice to their own feelings at a time when they most need to.
sharing in preparations
When children have enjoyed the company of a much-loved pet, there is no reason why they shouldn’t also enjoy preparing for its farewell. As we all know, funerals can be occasions for family togetherness and happy experiences, as well as sadness. Depending on the pet-farewell ritual you have decided to establish, let little ones help with activities surrounding it. Picking and arranging flowers, and choosing (and practising) a song to sing are practical distractions from sadness. Making a coffin (a carton turned inside out and decorated with colourful animal drawings) is another way to be involved, as is creating a goodbye card. Choosing a nicely shaped piece of driftwood, or making a crayon drawing on a flat piece of box-wood are both simple ideas for making a headstone. If you decide to choose communal cremation instead of a burial, allowing your child to pick a location to distribute the ashes could also help them deal with the grief of losing a pet, as well as give them a special place that will allow them to remember the good times with their lost pet. These creative contributions can be carried by children to the ceremony and will help them to feel part of the occasion.
Funerals inevitably raise questions in everyone’s minds as to the meaning of life, and what happens after death. Children burying a pet are unlikely to be an exception to this rule. In fact, quite the opposite ? they will almost certainly be full of questions. If you are not prepared for these, you may well make the situation much more uncomfortably mysterious than it needs to be.
Those with already well-established spiritual beliefs are able to draw on these. Those with more purely scientific leanings can likewise convey these in such a way that children are comforted (?Ginger’s body turns back into lovely, soft earth’). If you have no formulated thoughts on what happens after death, it can be a good idea to have examples of those who do, for example: ?Aunty Rima thinks all the animals that die go to heaven and God takes care of them forever’ or ?Uncle Ben thinks animals turn back into soil and help the flowers to grow. So every time we see a pretty flower we can think of Bunny’.
Sadness doesn’t simply disappear after a pet dies but, fortunately, children are likely to move on more rapidly from grief than adults. However, just like grown-ups, little ones will come and go from their feelings. Don’t try to hurry grief along. On the contrary, make sure there are pictures of your child’s pet in places where they see them ? magneted to the fridge, pinned to the noticeboard, in a little frame on the kitchen table. If children want to talk about their pet, this gives them a concrete starting point. If they feel sad, it can often help them to remember why.
Some children will begin asking when they can get a new pet long before others feel ready for it. It’s okay to ask them to wait a little while. Explain that some people in the family still feel a bit too sad to choose another pet, but that it won’t be long before you can all sit down to talk about it. Not only does this acknowledge that grief takes time, it also quietly brings a sense of dignity to the concept of death.
For all the sadness and mystery surrounding death, there is no need for children to fear it. Little ones who experience the death of a pet, and who are helped to acknowledge it sensitively, and manage it practically, are being well equipped in the very best way to deal with similar events in the future.
“Make it clear to children that a funeral is a special ?remembering’ time. It’s not a time to jump around and play and shout.”
*Catlins author, Diana Noonan, is one of New Zealand’s best-known writers for children.