Pets are a part of everyday life in the Western World, and we have kept them in our homes and loved them like they were members of the family. Many people will feed them the same food they eat, let them sleep in the beds that they sleep in, and cuddle them for affection, or when they feel down. Yet, as much as we love and cherish them, their time with us is often far too short.
Recently, we needed to deal with a pet loss of our own. There have been several over the last few years where the pets belonged to we adults of the family, but the most recent loss was of the guinea pig of our youngest, Char, who is 7 1/2. With four girls, and 4 guinea pigs, we knew that losses would occur at different times, but didn't expect this to happen quite so soon, as the guineas are all less than a year old.
Being a fan of the boy-band, One Direction, Char had named her guinea pig after Liam Payne. Liam was one of the two scrappiest members of the litter, but he was cherished greatly! He would often fight the 9 1/2 year old's guinea pig, Ozzie, and the two battled for domination in the pack.
So when Liam began to eat less of his veggies, and finally stop eating altogether earlier this week, we knew something was wrong. We had told the girls that we would not - and could not - spend lots of money if they got sick, so if anything happened that was not easily diagnosable and fixable, we would have to put the pet down.
"But Why did it have to be Char's?"
The vet checked - even did a favour for us, as we are on a very limited, fixed budget at this time - and gave us a free x-ray, just so we would be able to give Char a reason for the loss. He had a major blockage in his bladder, and was unable to urinate, so sepsis had likely set in, and he was dying. Guinea pigs do not do well with surgery, but even so, this blockage would be very difficult to treat if he even survived the surgery to remove it.
When my partner, Sarie, and I discussed it and had our own bit of grieving time, she asked: "But why did it have to be Char's guinea pig?" I knew there was no answer to this, as did she, but as with any type of grieving, we question the whys and hows and try to determine what we could have done to prevent it. It is a natural stage of the grieving process.
The reason for this particlar question, though, is that she is the youngest, and with recent life changes for all of us - and just the fact that she is at the defiant and push-the-boundaries stage, being 7 - she has been having difficulties in a lot of areas that have come out as emotional outbursts. Now she had to deal with the loss of her pet that she loved so dearly. We didn't wish that it happened to any of the other girls, either, but this just seemed like it would be the most difficult to deal with and to help her understand what had happened and why.
Your Feelings Are Normal
The first thing to remember when a child deals with this loss is that they will feel overwhelming sadness and will probably cry for quite a long time, possibly uncontrollably at times. This is a normal process as they try to wrap their heads around the fact that they will not see or play with or hold their pet ever again.
We know that there are many stages of grieving, and it has been broken down to 7-steps, or 12 steps, but the most common aspects of grieving involve sadness, guilt (escpecially if we have had to euthanize the pet for any reason), denial that it happened, and even anger that it happened (even if there is no logical reason to be angry). Going through these stages is normal, and we have to encourage our children to express what they feel so that they can get it out, and start to feel better.
When I was young, I had a puppy that died of parvovirus at about 9 months old. I went through these stages, crying when my dad told me, getting angry that God had taken him away from me, feeling guilty that I hadn't made sure he stayed in the back yard.
To help me deal with my sadness and express myself, my dad suggested that I draw a picture, or write a story or something that would help me remember him in the good times. I remember drawing a funny picture that, while it made me sad to think of Smokey, I would laugh through the tears when I saw myself flying through the air as he pulled me on his leash.
After Liam was euthanised, we brought him home in a shoe box, wrapped in a blanket. We let Char see him, hold him and pet him to say her final goodbyes as she cried - and let the other guinea pigs, his litter-mates, see him and sniff him for a while too, so that they can say their goodbyes, in such a way as guinea pigs may do - then we put him back in the box.
Gigi, our 9 1/2 year old suggested Char decorate the box. Char put stars ("for all of the angels in the sky, and this big red one is Liam," she informed us), and hearts ("for how much I loved him"), and the girls all signed their names to say their goodbyes. While the other three girls still have their guinea pigs, it was heart-warming, and probably healthy for each of them to say goodbye to him in their own way, and to feel sad for his passing, and for Char as well.
Giving a child an outlet for expressing their sadness can help them deal with the loss, as often they will not know how to express what they feel in words. If they are artistic in any way - and what child is not? - they will find their "voice", so-to-speak, with paper and paint, or crayons, or whatever medium they enjoy most.
What Not To Do
Children won't always understand the finality and irreversable nature of death, especially when they are quite young. This is something we need to teach them, not to scare them, but so that they can come to terms with it as it will be something they deal with for the rest of their lives.
We should never discourage our children from crying over the loss of a pet. To them, there is often no difference between the fish that they never held, and the dog that they played with every day. Grieving is part of our natural process, and we should allow them to express their grief in their own way.
Another piece of good advice that I was given was to never be too abstract about explaining the death of a pet. Saying she was "put to sleep" can have negative connotations in their minds, as suddenly, going to sleep might involve never waking up again! If you tell them the pet "went away", they may be waiting for the pet to return to them, when we know this will never happen.
This can be a very scary concept, so we must ensure that we use direct terminology and explain the truth of the matter. "Fluffy was sick and in a lot of pain and would have died, but probably not for a long time. So we had to give her a drug to help her die without pain so she wouldn't suffer any more." While it may sound like you were being cruel to the animal, it is what happened. It might make your child sad, and they might blame you or be mad at you, but again, anger is a part of the process. Allow them to share that anger, but continue to explain that while you understand their feelings, you were trying to be kind to your pet and let them stop being in pain.
Finally, don't ignore or dismiss the child's questions about what happened, or what will happen next. They will be curious and want to know what is going to happen. Give them direct explanations without too much gruesome detail. Perhaps telling them that their pet's spirit will always be in our hearts, but their body will disintegrate back into the earth can make it feel more natural and spiritual at the same time.
No matter what happens, try to be open and honest, and encourage them to feel what they need to in order to feel batter.