It can be excruciatingly difficult to lose a family pet that everyone loved so much as losing a pet, for some, is so close to losing an actual family member. A family pet takes on qualities and human traits that belong specifically to the family. Everyone recognizes and ascribes qualities to their pet and loves it so deeply because they see so much of themselves in it.
A pet has its own special function and even a specific role for the family. Sometimes it’s the dog that is the family clown and everyone laughs at his antics. Sometimes it’s the bird that is the family smart aleck who parrots witty comebacks in the other room while the kids are doing their homework. Other families may have the cat that loves to cuddle the kids at night and purr them to sleep. The purpose of a pet can vary of course, but for more common roles the pet can create comedic relief, comfort, unity, love, a listening ear, entertainment, and more.
Talking points for this sensitive subject can be narrowed down to three main ones. Understanding these topics can create a conversation for your child that has empathy, connection, and a bit of restoration of what was lost. The three main topics to understand and consider for a conversation with your little one are: The mirror, the value, the restoration.
As mentioned above, many family members will ascribe human traits to their family pet, often recognizing themselves in the pet’s behavior. Children easily and quickly attach to pets they connect with. You may have heard or hear your child say things like, “We both loved chocolate ice cream,” and, “He loved to play dress up like me.” This is your child finding similar qualities and using those to connect with his or her pet. However, when the pet passes away, the mirror is no longer available to remind your child that she or he has a partner, a connection, and loved one there to share in the memories.
Also, children feel attachment more strongly by mirroring images – their mom, their dad, sisters, etc., because they do not yet have a fully developed sense of self which comes later. When the pet is no longer there, it cannot reflect back to them who they are. Therefore, it is as if your child is losing a part of his or herself. Remind them of the qualities they saw in the pet that reminds them of who they are and what their role is in the family.
Family pets have tremendous value. Pets can entertain us for hours, provide comfort, they can hold our secrets, be our best friends, and they even protect and comfort us. The value of a pet is exponential. When a child loses a pet, they can lose one or all the purposes above and feel the loss greatly. They may feel scared at night to not have their cat with them or their protector dog. They may feel depressed if they do not have a best friend to talk to anymore.
Seek to understand which of the roles and purposes your pet played in your child’s life (they may be different from child to child) and find a way to honor that role. Next, possibly provide some type of replacement support as your child grieves the loss. If there is an obvious co-dependency seek to reflect to the child those qualities and roles to them. For example: They can find “Fluffy” inside their own heart and use those qualities to comfort themselves when they miss their pet, are scared, sad, or are wanting to laugh.
The memory of your pet lives on through your family. It is good to understand and communicate to your child that the pet came into your family’s life for a brief time to play out the role and to have a specific job to do for your family. Engage your child in discussing what your pet’s job was while with your family. Then you could inspire your child by asking, “What’s next for our family?” Asking your child to come up with solutions for the role and purpose of the deceased pet is a great way to spur your child to actively think about restoring what was lost and bringing it back into the family in a very natural way. Remembering your pet’s qualities is a way to honor your family’s unity, your bonds, your sense of humor, and your rhythms of love. Your child will begin to see that it is everyone’s job and that the love, jokes, comfort, and friendship is still within the walls of your home.
Understanding the mirror reflection your child has for its connection to your beloved, deceased pet gives you the bigger picture for approaching the conversation. Determining the value that your pet brought to your child creates empathy. While remembering the pet’s purpose and contribution to the family values through restores a hope in your child that not all is lost, but they had and still have all the love right there with each other.