Helping Your Child Move on After the Death of a Pet

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There is so much about being a mother that propels you to learn and grow. Functioning on little sleep, mastering the art of multi-tasking, seeing life through the eyes of a child, sacrificing for the good of another - these are all skills I have been able to hone since my daughter entered my world nearly eight years ago.

Recently, I learned another incredibly important life lesson: how to model healthy grieving for my child. One of our beloved dogs died unexpectedly at the beginning of the summer. While this loss was tragic and heart breaking, it ultimately served as a teaching and learning opportunity.

At seven years old, my daughter had never been faced with the death of a loved one. Because it is a subject that can be difficult and uncomfortable to breach, I spent her seven years actively avoiding conversations about death. That is, until the day we had to tell her that our first family dog was no longer with us. This was difficult for many reasons. Most of all, I was experiencing my own sadness, but I knew I had to show her how to grieve in a healthy manner despite just wanting to curl in a ball and cry for days.

Through my family's experience of traveling through grief, I have gathered some key lessons that I want to share with other moms. Regardless of your family's spiritual beliefs, here are some helpful experiences we had in healing.

1. Let your child see you cry. It is not your job as a parent to remain calm and stoic at all times. It is far more beneficial for children to watch their parents expressing a range of typical emotions. When faced with death, people are supposed to have strong emotions! Additionally, crying has many benefits including helping our bodies to get rid of stress hormones. Facing the loss of a pet and death for the first time is stressful and scary for children. Let yours know that crying is healthy, necessary, and will help them feel better.

2. Find the resources in your community and use them! In the midst of our tragedy, I was wise enough to know that my daughter would benefit from a professional's perspective on dealing with death. In my situation, I contacted our school's social worker to seek assistance. After school on the day my daughter consulted with the social worker, she could not wait to tell me what she had learned about pet loss. She begged me to have a chance to meet with this resourceful woman again. One of the best things that resulted from our contact with a school-based professional was that my daughter learned there are safe and helpful people at her school available during stressful times.

3. Celebrate your pet's life. No matter how much you might want to sweep your uncomfortable feelings and painful memories under the rug, spending time remembering your pet in a special way will show your child the importance of acknowledging loss. In my family's case, we chose to hold a memorial service for our pet. We gathered close family and read aloud a tribute to our dog that my daughter and I wrote. Doing something similar to this brings comfort and allows your child to focus on happy memories.

4. Allow your child to express his/her feelings whenever necessary. For weeks following our dog's death, my daughter told me, "I miss Toby" several times a day. There were moments that I did not want to think about him, but remembering my role to help her through her emotions actually helped me to deal with my own lingering sadness.

We are nearly two months past the date of our dog's death. I look back on these weeks as an amazing opportunity to teach my daughter about life. And, at the same time, taking on the role of teacher and helper caused me to learn how to grieve myself and how to be a better adult and mother. While there were difficult and sad times, we are stronger now for having conquered them together as a family. I hope in your family's time of loss, you can grow stronger, too.

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