As a bereavement counselor, I'm often asked by parents how best to help children deal with the loss of a pet. There is really no right or wrong way to approach this sensitive subject, but it's important that, when a pet death happens or is about to happen, we explain things as openly and honestly as we can, and at the child's level of understanding.

One reader of this column recently wrote that her six-year old son was really missing their beloved Cocker Spaniel Jenny, who had died the week before and was now buried in the family's back yard. The boy asked whether he could dig up his dog so he could give her a hug. The mother needed a way to explain to her son that only Jenny's body was in her grave, and only the physical part of his relationship with Jenny was lost when Jenny died. The spiritual part of Jenny, and the family's memories of all their happy times with her, would be alive forever.

One of the most effective ways to help children understand such complicated matters is to tell them a story, or read together one of the many wonderful children's books available on this topic. (I've listed some of my favorites at the end of this column. Check with your local library or neighborhood bookstore, or e-mail me TousleyM@aol.com for more information.).

The story I suggested to this boy's mother is based on one I found in Bereavement Magazine ("Throwing Away the Wrapper" by Bob Willis, January/February 1998, p. 29):

A mother was trying to explain to her young son Ben what had happened to his beloved dog Raisin after she died. As he was getting ready for bed one night, the boy asked his mother, "Where is Raisin now?"

When she explained to him that his dog had died, the boy asked again, "But where is Raisin now?"

Suddenly aware of how helpless she felt to explain, the mother answered, "Raisin is in Heaven."

With this little Ben seemed satisfied, and he quietly went to bed. Next day, when Ben went out in the backyard to visit Raisin's grave, he saw the grave site covered with flowers. He looked up at his mother and asked, "Is this Heaven?"

Again Ben's mother was at a loss to explain the difference between Raisin's being in Heaven and visiting Raisin's grave. That night, as she tucked her son in bed, she took a chocolate candy bar from her pocket, carefully removed the wrapper, broke off a chunk and handed it to her son. "Let's talk about Raisin," she said. "Tell me what good memories you have of Raisin."

The boy's eyes brightened as he told how he'd gone exploring by the river with Raisin, took her to bed with him every night, and played fetch and chase games with her in the backyard. As he shared each happy memory, he munched contentedly on the rest of the candy bar.

When he'd finished with the good memories of Raisin and the candy bar, his mother pulled him close and hugged him. "Honey," she said, "your dog Raisin is a lot like this candy bar. You know the good, delicious, wonderful and enjoyable part of Raisin that you remember? That's the part of Raisin that's in Heaven."

Then she held up the empty candy bar wrapper. "This is the part of Raisin that's buried in the ground just Raisin's wrapper." A beautiful, peaceful look came over the little boy's face as he realized what his mother was saying.

This simple story teaches us that the enjoyable part of those we love is never forgotten. We lose only the physical part of the relationship, not the emotional and spiritual parts. What seemed like a puzzle for a boy and his mother just hours before had become a clear picture of the new relationship that's possible when someone we love has died.

Listed below are just a few of the many sensitive and caring stories and books about pet loss written especially for children (and grown-ups as well).  See the Articles ~ Columns ~ Books page for a more complete listing:

The Fall of Freddie the Leaf: A Story of Life for All Ages , by Leo Buscaglia (Slack, 1982)

Lifetimes: The Beautiful Way to Explain Death to Children , by Bryan Mellonie and Robert Ingpen (Bantam Books, 1983)

The Tenth Good Thing About Barney , by Judith Viorst (Macmillan, 1971)

It Must Hurt a Lot: A Child's Book About Death , by Doris Sanford (Multnomah Press, 1986

When a Pet Dies , by Fred Rogers (Putnam, 1988)

All God's Creatures Go To Heaven , by Amy Nolfo-Wheeler (Nol Studio, Inc., 1996)

Children and Pet Loss: A Guide for Helping , by Marty Tousley (Our Pals Publishing, 1997)

Copyright by Martha M. Tousley, RN, MS, FT, DCC    All rights reserved

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