Kids' grief over loss of pets -- and father
I am in a terrible situation. I have two children, one boy who is 10 years-old & one girl who is 6 years-old (she just turned six). We had two pets, a Boxer puppy (male) and a female cat (had her for 7 years).
Back at the end of August 2008, we bought our Boxer puppy (my kid's first dog). They loved that dog and played with it a lot. We all got very attached to that little pistol in a very short amount of time.
Well, I got married on November 22nd this year. That same day, our puppy got out of the gate and was hit by a car within 30 minutes! It was the strangest thing, because we got married right up the street from our home, and had to hurry out the door to the wedding while our dog was still out. We were actually 30 minutes late to our own wedding, because we were looking for the dog! When we got back and began to look for him again, we found him dead. He had been hit by a car and we were gone a total of 30 minutes from our home (and yes we actually had a real wedding that fast).
I read a lot of information on the net about how to help children cope with death. The majority of the information I read said to be honest, brief, and answer all questions. I did this with both children. My son actually told me that he wished I “hadn't told him the truth”. He said he would have rather believed that our dog ran away. My daughter is having issues worrying about dying since then. I've had to reassure her, comfort her, and tell her that that is not going to happen to her.
Well, guess what happens today? We find our cat (We've had her for 7 years) dead under the house. She likes to lie under there, and apparently it was a spontaneous death (possible cardiomyopathy, kidney failure, or blockage). Needless to say, I am just devastated! The last time we saw her was December 22nd (weird, one month to the day we lost our dog). She never stays gone more then a day from the house, so come Tuesday the 23rd, I still can't find her. I had heard a screech during the night outside our window on the 22nd, but assumed it was just the cats messing around like they normally do (our neighborhood has many cats, and she made friends with them all. (We only had one cat, her. She was awesome). My husband just found her today, after I posted fliers 3 days ago and hadn't heard a thing from anyone. She was a smart cat, and I knew she hadn't been hit. I told him to check under the house beneath our room, and sure enough there she was (I've had a lot of cats, and they always stay near and hide when they die). I am very upset, because out of all the cats I've had she was THE MOST special.
Now, I don't know what to do. How am I going to explain this to my children? I am worried to death about it, and just can't imagine telling them their cat is dead too! It's only been a month since we lost the dog, and my son is still mourning his loss and visiting his grave. I also feel it's important to add that my kid's father was in a terrible car accident in June of 2005. That accident left him in a semi-conscious state due to brain injury….so they lost their father three years ago too. I really need some advice, so please help me if you can. Before you ask, yes they see a psychologist. He is actually the head of psychology at a major medical college. He is fantastic, but I need some immediate advice. It's the holiday season, and they already overheard me talking about the cat missing. They are going to want to know…
I know this spill was long, and I appreciate you reading all of this. If you can offer some advice please do
First, I am so sorry that you and your kids lost both your puppy and your cat. Losing a pet is losing a family member, both for adults and children. For kids, especially, losing a pet can be traumatic and will always be remembered. In the case of your kids, any death, but especially a death caused by a car, will remind them of their father's car accident. The fact that your puppy was killed on the day you remarried is such a strange coincidence that it must feel eerie to your kids.
The information you read on the net about how to help children cope with death (“Be honest, brief, and answer all questions”) is the standard advice for the simple reason that it allows kids to face the truth and grieve, rather than remain haunted by questions about their pet's death. It isn't surprising that your son told you that he wished you “hadn't told him the truth.” We all want to deny death, and facing it is scary and painful, particularly if the puppy in some way also symbolizes his father. While he might rather believe that his dog ran away, it doesn't mean that you did the wrong thing by telling him the truth. In fact, one of the most common reactions kids have to a parent's death is a fear of abandonment, including the shame of not being good enough to keep the parent with them. While the finality of death is hard to face, the message that the puppy he loved – or his father – ran out on him is not a message you want him plaguing him through life.
It is also not surprising that your six year old daughter is worrying about dying since her puppy died. Losing her father before she could really understand, and now losing her puppy, would be enough to make any child worry that death is always looming, ready to strike. It would not be surprising if both your kids became super-clingy, angry, or acted out in other ways as well right now.
So it is terrific that your kids have a therapist they trust, who will help them work through their grief. But I understand your immediate question: Since you know your cat is dead, do you tell your kids, or is it ok to protect them from yet another loss?
The standard psychological advice would be to tell your kids the truth about your cat and help them to grieve. And given your own grief about the loss of your cat, it might be challenging to hide your knowledge from your kids.
But in this case I am wondering if your question, and the answer, aren't spiritual as well. Regardless of how much your kids love your new husband, they will be processing their father's death for the rest of their lives. What kind of a world do we live in where young children can lose their father to a tragic accident? How can a child accept such a loss and still conclude that the universe is a friendly place? (Einstein said that the most important decision any of us ever make is whether they live in a friendly world.)
And what possible meaning can your kids draw from the death of their puppy in a car accident on the day you re-wed? I'm wondering whether your kids had a chance to truly mourn their dad, given that he did not die immediately but was left in a brain-injured, semi-conscious state. Is it possible that their puppy's death provided a symbolic opportunity – one they needed -- for them to grieve their father? But why, on top of the puppy, the sudden death of your family cat? Given her importance to you, is this an opportunity for you to move through and let go of old grief as well?
As much as we want to, parents can't protect their children from the harsh realities of life. All we can do is give them help so they feel safe in the world and conclude that the world is a good place. Only by honoring their grief (and all other emotion) do we help them move past it.
My prescription, therefore, is to let your kids grieve their dead cat. Let them see you crying and mourning her. Have a funeral. (Usually it's very helpful for kids to hold the dead body, but I realize it may be too late for that now.) Be there for them as they cry and rage. If they rail against God, empathize. You don't have to explain the unfairness of life, just provide an antidote in the form of love. Help them to draw pictures of her. Frame a photo of her for your wall. Write a short poem together describing how great she was. While you're at it, do all this for your puppy, and plant a tree for your kids' dad. Every year, light a candle on their dad's birthday and honor their loss. Find some good books on death that are appropriate for children and read them to your kids (Here's a link with some recommendations.) Psychology – talking, feeling and re-enacting – is a first step in healing, but humans also need ritual, and spiritual meaning, if we are to emerge whole from the inevitable losses of life.
Will it be hard? Yes. But if you lie to your kids, they will sense it. You don't want to give them the message that some things are too terrible to face. You want your kids to learn from you that emotions, once faced and experienced, dissipate. That life is full of mysterious twists and turns but always great love. That death makes life, and love, even more meaningful. That together a family can make it through anything. That it's a friendly universe. And that you will always be there for them, no matter what.