Lining the flower bed on the side of our home is a somber arrangement of headstones, bearing the names of the pets that have gone on to the great pet playground in the sky.
Hermit crabs, hamsters, fish (Oh, the fish! Those beta fish are tricky!), a dog and a few chickens have all lived out their lives in our home. Some, truth be told, did not have long lives. Others (lookin’ at you, Gabby the Warrior Chicken) went out in a blaze of glory and have become part of our collective family story repertoire.
The death of a pet can be hard, on both parent and child. Hoping your child won’t notice that the once blue fish is suddenly red is not an effective way of dealing with the truth. As difficult as it is, walking with your kids through the loss of a beloved (or tolerated) pet can be a valuable lesson for the entire family.
Life is precious.
Being responsible for a pet is a wonderful way to learn compassion, the importance of daily care and looking after others. Pets remind you to laugh, to slow down and meet new people, to race to have another adventure or to observe the smallest details. Children learn to be gentle and kind to pets at home.
The importance of being healthy.
The death of a pet can teach some hard lessons: Never sit on a hamster. Chicken versus coyote does not end well. Fish need certain types of water. It can also be a learning lesson for the future: Does my pet need exercise? What kind of food shouldn’t I feed my dog? Being responsible for someone else’s well-being is empowering and invaluable for kids. It teaches them to think about what is best for the pet, even if it isn’t convenient.
Loss is hard.
For young children, the loss of a pet can be especially confusing. Letting your child know that it is ok to be upset and even cry over their loss can help them learn to deal with grief in a healthy manner. Even though you may not have felt any particular fondness for the hermit crab, it belonged to your child and now it’s gone. There will be a hole in their life…help them mourn the loss.
Adults cry too.
When our dog died, we were all upset. Crying with our kids let them know that even parents feel sad. They got to watch us walk through the process of mourning and moving on, and learned that it’s still ok to love your dog as a grownup. When we cried together, we could talk about what was on our hearts, and help each other not be as sad.
Moving on is ok.
There are six hermit crab headstones in our pet cemetery, all bearing the name ‘Joe’. Each crab was replaced by his successor typically within days of his demise. Because the crabs weren’t the warm, fuzzy type of pet, it was easy to shrug off the death and simply get another one. The hamsters, however, were a different story. Each hamster was special and unique, beloved by its owner and irreplaceable. Talking about how to move on was an important part of the grieving process for our girls as they wept for their pets.
Often, parents want to shield their kids from the sadness of death. Unfortunately, that plan often backfires as the kids get older and start to realize that death touches everyone. Helping them learn to accept death as a natural part of life will help them embrace the joy of living, and the sweetness of remembering beloved pets will teach them how to celebrate a life well-lived.
Guest post by: Doug who blogs at www.herepup.com. If you would like to read more of his great posts please be sure to visit the blog.