Grieving the loss of the family pet


Dear Adele,

Our beloved family pet, Baxter, a Labrador Retriever, will soon be crossing the Rainbow Bridge. We know our children will be devastated to lose the pet they have always known and who has offered them unconditional love. We are looking for ideas to help them through this most difficult time.



Dear Distraught,

I am so sorry for the loss your family is about to bear. Pets play an important role in our lives, and our emotional connection to them helps us through life’s difficulties.

There is no question that it is very hard to lose one’s pet, as the animal has most likely been one of a person’s major supports during challenging times. Pet loss can be extremely painful and feels intense because the animal’s love and support has been unconditional for us. As well, when the inevitable comes, we are putting a lot of time and energy into taking care of them. And for children, the animal may well have been in the home longer than the youngsters have been alive.

The death of a canine companion can be devastating for the little ones, as well as adults. The animals have treated the family members very specially. Who can forget how excited a dog gets when they come home? Who can forget the tail wags and the doggie kisses? Who can forget the long walks and the cuddling up together on the couch?

Should you decide to euthanize your pet, it is a big choice and a big responsibility. You may question yourself about the timing of your decision. You don’t want your pet to suffer, and making the decision is so difficult, it is best made with advice and support from professionals and other family. You may also feel some guilt that you’re happy it’s finally over because the experience has been so painful. If this is your situation, you’re not alone, and I feel for you.

Grief is to be expected, and it may be felt as deeply as the loss of any human. For your children, it may be greater than any grief they have experienced before. However, it will provide them with an opportunity to understand that grief is real and normal when a much-loved person leaves us or a pet passes over the Rainbow Bridge.

While grief is experienced differently by all people, the Kubler-Ross model delineates five stages. People can move back and forth between the different stages and it is highly individual how long one might stay in any one particular phase. Knowing those stages will help you recognize the feelings of your children so you’ll be able to support them. The stages are denial, anger, bargaining, depression and acceptance.

You might want to read a good book on the subject by Betty Jane Carmack entitled ‘Grieving the Death of a Pet’. You might also find it helpful to remember your animal companion, to say thank you to him and to assist your progeny to move out of grief towards hope, with some of the following ideas, many borrowed from this publication:

  • Join an in-person or virtual support group were everyone has experienced a similar loss of a pet.
  • Journal in a notebook. Write, draw or copy a quote relevant to the death of your furry friend.
  • Remember Baxter with a space in your home.
  • Designate a specific time to think about the dog.
  • Speak about your cherished pet often, recalling special times with him.
  • Create sympathy cards to send out to your friends and relatives about the death of your four- legged friend.
  • Craft a Spirit boat in which items associated with your pet are held.
  • Write a poem about the pet.
  • Make a photo book depicting favorite times with your pet.
  • Keep your dog’s collar and tags in a special place in the home.
  • Memorialize your pet with flowers, a bush or a tree planting.
  • Bury the dog in a pet cemetery and purchase a headstone.
  • Consult grief counsellors, and access online resources and books about grief.

The passing of Baxter might be your children’s first experience with death which can be scary. They will require a lot of support. Remember it takes time to move forward. Whatever you do, involve the whole family, including other pets for they too, will grieve Baxter’s passing.

There are different schools of thought about whether to get another pet immediately or to wait. I rather think that since there is no replacement for the relationship the children have with Baxter, that it might be best for some time to pass before you add a new pet to the family. As well, since the personality of each pet is different and the bond that the children will have with a new animal will be unique, it is probably wiser to choose a dog who has a different appearance from the one which has passed. This will likely be less confusing for the youngsters.

A few books for children on this subject are ‘The Invisible Leash’ by Patrice Karst, ‘The Memory Box’ by Joanna Rowland and ‘The Rainbow Bridge: A Visit to Pet Paradise’ by Adrian Raeside.

I will conclude with some inspiring quotations on this subject:

“If there are no dogs in Heaven, then when I die, I want to go where they went.”— Will Rogers
“The risk of love is loss, and the price of loss is grief. But the pain of grief is only a shadow, when compared with the pain of never risking love.”— Hilary Stanton Zunin
“A pet is never truly forgotten until it is no longer remembered.” — Lacie Petitto

Sincerely, Adele

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