Herald Journal Columns
June 6, 2005, Herald Journal

Helping children cope when a pet dies

By JENNI SEBORA

Growing up on a farm, I had the wonderful experience of observing Mother Nature at its best, and watching new life enter into this big vast world in the form of kittens, puppies, bunnies, and calves. Sometimes, I even had to help it happen.

There would be times when a calf would be breech or the mother cow had difficulty with the birthing, and with the help of a rope, we would have to assist my dad in pulling the calf out. That was always incredible to me.

As Mother Nature goes full circle, we also mourned the passing of many of our pets and farm animals as children growing up on the farm.

There were times when the calf didn’t make it through the birthing process, or cats and baby kittens were stricken with some type of illness or some predator found them. Perhaps the dog ran in front of the milk truck or on the highway, or we would find little birds or other small creatures that just did not make it.

Many times, we held little “good-bye” ceremonies for our animals, buried them in our pet cemetery (in the grove), and placed stones or some other type of trinket on their burial site to serve as a memorial to them.

Now that my own family is also living “in the country,” my children have also experienced the natural order of things.

My children and their cousins found a baby bird that fell prey to a nest fall or another animal recently. They placed the baby bird in a small box, buried it in the same grove where my pets had been buried as a girl, put a circle of rocks (from my rock garden) around the burial spot, laid some leaves and flowers (from my garden) on the grave site, and paid their respects with a short, but meaningful sermon.

My children have also had the experience of observing new life enter the world. We have farm (country) cats.

Both my daughter and my son have a cat, and they both were pregnant at the same time. My husband happened to be on the deck and called for our kids to come outside and listen. They identified baby kitten sounds coming from under the deck.

Sure enough, there were some brand new kittens – and I mean, brand new. Our son observed that his cat’s (Midnight’s) stomach was moving in and out, and he concluded that she must be having more babies. His conclusion was right.

The memories came flooding back of when I was a young girl and had experienced the same wonderful observations as my children. Some things don’t change over time, and I am thankful for that.

Well, needless to say, mamas like to protect their babies, and that’s no exception for cats. Mama cats move their babies to different spots to keep them safe from harm, just as we do with our children.

It’s always interesting watching the mama cat move her kittens. Each kitten is carried one-by-one in the mouth to the designated spot. It usually takes a few hours before all the kittens are moved to their new “home,” wherever that may be.

Mama Cat had found an old garden urn on our front porch to use as a suitable home for her family. They weren’t housed in the urn long, before she thought our living room, behind the television cabinet, was a better spot.

Via a hole in the screen patio door, she attempted to move the kittens into the house, and she succeeded with a couple of the kittens. And a feat that was – she carried each kitten from the front of the front porch to the patio door, which is in the back of  the house, crawled up the screen door, through the hole (all with a kitten in her mouth), and then into the family room, behind the television cabinet.

Now, I suppose, I could have stopped this process, but I was in awe of the whole situation. After two successful trips into the house with a couple of her babies, I did move the kittens back into the garden urn, and I am sure I confused Mama Cat. She was probably thinking to herself that she had just moved those cats, and there were only three kittens left in the urn, but now, there were five.

How could I do that to another mother?

Well, eventually, Mama Cat transported the kittens into the backyard by the dryer vent, where warm air blows out. But as every living creature takes its full circle, the kittens were found and killed by some other animal.

Now, being a mom, myself, and even having experienced this ordeal before, many times, as a child, it was still difficult. They were my son’s cats.

I discovered the deceased kittens as my children were playing with their cousins nearby. My stomach took a turn, upside down, and various thoughts bombarded me.

Should I try and pick them up (of course, not with my hands) and carry them to a spot where my son, daughters, and cousins wouldn’t find them? Should I, at least, cover them with a blanket?

Time did not allow me to do any of the above. Caleb, my son, came over and discovered the situation for himself.

My husband was not home to aid me in this parent-child matter. I explained that some animal must have killed the kittens, and I shared with him similar experiences that I had as a child with my pets. After a few tears shed by both of us, he accepted what happened, and we shared the news with his sister and cousins.

The cat story is not over yet, nor is the circle of life. Remember, I told you that my daughter’s cat, Purrl, was pregnant, too.

My husband, who had his truck window halfway down, was going to get into his truck and behold, there was Mama Cat number two, with four baby kittens in the driver’s seat.

He, once again, called for the kids, and they happily saw the baby kittens. Obviously, the cat family could not remain there, so we found a basket, lined it with a blanket, and put the kittens in their new home.

It’s been a time of ups and downs with the cats, but, nonetheless, all a part of life and growing up. For many children, their first real experience with loss may occur when a pet dies. When this hapens, children need love, support, consolation, and affection.

The American Academy of Child & Adolescent Psychiatry, on its website, www.aacap.org,  noted that children’s reactions to the death of a pet will depend upon their age and developmental level.

According to the websiste, children three to five years of age see death as temporary and potentially reversible. Between ages six and eight, children begin to develop a more realistic understanding of the nature of death. Generally, it is not until nine years of age that children fully understand that death is permanent and final.

For this reason, very young children should be told that when a pet dies, it stops moving, doesn’t see or hear anymore, and won’t wake up again, and they may need to have the explanation repeated to them, the website recommended.

The American Academy of Child & Adolescent Psychiatry also noted that there are many ways a parent or caregiver can tell their children that a pet has died. It is often helpful to make children as comfortable as possible, such as using a soothing voice, holding their hand or putting an arm around them, and telling them in a familiar setting.

It is important to be honest when telling children that a pet has died, the website emphasized. Trying to protect children with vague or inaccurate explanations can create anxiety, confusion, and mistrust.

Children may have many questions after a pet dies, and it is important to answer such questions simply, but honestly.

Children may experience sadness, anger, denial, fear, and guilt when their pet dies. They may also be jealous of friends and pets.

Spend time talking with your child about his/her feelings. If possible, it is helpful to have the child say goodbye before the pet dies.

Parents can also serve as role models by sharing their feelings with their children. Let your child know that it is okay to feel the way they do and that it is normal to miss pets after they die. Encourage them to come to you with questions or for comfort and support.

There is no best way for children to mourn their pets. They need to be given time to remember their pets, and it helps to talk about the pet with friends and family.

Mourning a pet has to be done in a child’s way. Children may want to bury their pet, make a memorial, or have a ceremony, just as my children and their cousins did with the baby bird they found. Other children may write poems and stories, or make drawings of the pet.

The death of a pet may cause a child to remember other painful losses or events. A child who appears to be overwhelmed by their grief and not able to function in their normal routine may benefit from an evaluation by a qualified mental health professional, the Academy recommended on the web site.

Just as it is wonderful for children to have pets, there is also loss and sadness that occur with pet ownership, as well. We need to help our children and support them in this natural cycle of life.

A springtime craft

My son made a mosaic flowerpot and it is on display, with a plant in it, of course, on our patio table. To make this wonderful flowerpot, you and your children will need newspaper, pieces of broken tile and or pottery, beads, shells, charms, etc., ceramic tile grout, a plastic knife, a sponge, and a terra-cotta flowerpot.

Cover the work area with newspaper. Before starting to decorate the pot, discard any pieces of broken pottery and tiles that may have sharp edges (a parent’s job).

Spread a heavy layer of tile grout onto the flowerpot with the plastic knife, either the whole pot or just the rim. Then, press the chosen decorative pieces – the tile, shells, charms, etc. onto the grout. When finished, spread a little more grout between the pieces.

After the pot is dry, wipe off any grout film with a damp sponge. These pots make wonderful gifts.  

Tip: you can purchase tiles at very inexpensive prices. Place the tiles in a clear plastic bag (for protection) and break the tiles with a hammer. My son, with the help of his dad, enjoyed this portion of the activity also.

Quote

“Don’t just tell your child you love him – show him.”

Coley Lamprecht