When Your Child's Pet Dies
© 1994 by Paul Thigpen
After thirty years, I still vividly remember the day I rolled a tear-stained stone over the backyard grave of "Midnight," the faithful, furry companion of my childhood. The loss of my beloved cat not only grieved me; it angered and confused me as well. Why did it have to happen? What I needed more than anything else was a good long talk with an adult who could help me put things in perspective.
For many youngsters, the first concrete encounter with death comes with the loss of a pet. If you take the time to talk over this disturbing experience with your children, you can teach them some healthy ways to cope with grief and begin to prepare them for the inevitable time when they will feel a much sharper loss — the death of a family member or friend. Here are some guidelines:
· Respect your children's individual approaches to talking about the pet's death.
Each child works through grief in his or her own way. One youngster may need ample time alone before a conversation is productive. Another may want to talk long hours about the event and then go over all the same points again a day or two later. Don't force a discussion, but don't avoid it, either. Sooner or later, children need to talk about this critical issue.
· Sympathize with the hurt.
When a pet dies, the temptation for parents may be to dismiss the event as unimportant, saying, "It's only an animal." But no grief is trivial, and children's grief is genuine whether they lose a guppy or a grandparent. So as we talk with them, we first need to acknowledge their pain and let them know we're sorry that they hurt.
· Recognize other emotions that children may feel mixed up with the grief.
Grief rarely comes alone; it brings along anger over the loss and fear that further loss could result. Let your children know that these feelings are normal under the circumstances and be willing to listen patiently as they talk out their hostility or anxiety.
· Don't confuse children with misleading language meant to ease the pain.
Younger children especially tend to take our statements literally. If we say, "Kitty has gone to sleep," they may think death is something from which we can awaken. If we say, "Your hamster has gone to sleep forever," they may worry that one morning they themselves may never wake up.
· Answer questions as honestly and simply as you can.
Some questions need only a brief and obvious reply: Can my dead rabbit ever come back to life? Does it hurt my parakeet to be dead now? Other queries will be more difficult: Why did my gerbil have to die? Will my puppy go to heaven?
This is a good time to talk with your children about the natural cycle of life: Living things simply don't stay alive on earth forever. They are born, they live a while, and they die — but new living things are born who take their place, and life goes on.
Most youngsters at some point will ask why — why this particular pet died, why all animals have to die, why God made things this way. Sometimes a general answer may help: A long time ago, we may reply, people chose to disobey God, and when they broke their friendship with God, the whole world became broken as well. Death is a part of that broken world. God is fixing His broken world, but it takes a long time.
Of course, almost any answer we give can be countered with yet another "Why?" (Even two-year-olds have figured out that much.) So we have found in our family that it's best to help our children see early on that the question "Why?" can rarely be answered in a fully satisfying way when we're dealing with the tragedies of life. With some questions, we tell them, to get a complete answer we'll just have to wait to ask God when we get to heaven.
"Do animals go to heaven?" This is perhaps the most common question asked by children after a pet dies in a Christian home. Before we answer too quickly, assuring them that only people go to heaven, we should remember that even great Christian thinkers such as C. S. Lewis have debated this issue and left the possibility open.
It's important, of course, to tell our children that human beings have important qualities that set them apart from the animals. God has made us able to reason, to love, to obey Him, and to have fellowship with Him in a way that no other earthly creatures can. Unlike the animals, the Scripture says, we've been made in God's own "image and likeness" (see Gen. 1:26). For that reason, it may well be that life in heaven is a privilege animals don't share with us; the Scripture seems to be silent about the matter, and as far as I know, the Church has never pronounced on it authoritatively.
Nevertheless, it just might be that God will allow the animals we have loved on earth to take part somehow in our heavenly life as part of our eternal happiness. In fact, since God Himself takes delight in all the good creatures He has made, He may give animals a life in heaven for the sake of His own pleasure. Whatever the case, we can allow our children to leave the question open. We can also assure them that God loves every creature He makes, that He loves their pet even more than they do, and that their beloved animal is now in God's care.
Meanwhile, this is a good time to talk about the ultimate destiny of people as well. Make sure your children know we can be confident that God's great desire is to have us and all our human loved ones live with Him in heaven after we die. Tell them that Jesus opened the way for us to live with God forever if we choose to follow Him, and that Jesus Himself died and came back alive to show us that we too can hope for a life that never ends.
· Talk over comforting and humorous memories of your pet.
In the days after the initial shock of losing an animal friend, children can begin to take comfort and even pleasure in fond memories. Help them be thankful to God for the good times by recalling together happy or funny episodes from the life of their pet.
Conversations about the death of a beloved animal can lay the groundwork for the more painful talks that may someday be necessary when a family member or friend dies. If you let your children know they can pour out their hearts to you when they're grieving, the times of bereavement that all of us must sooner or later endure will be easier to bear — and will draw you closer together as a family.
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