TEENS & TWEENS // About Death
July was a tough month for our family. The melancholy images still flit through my mind, six months later, like pictures in a digital photo frame.
First came the earnest backyard funerals for our 3-year-old pet rats, Harry and Scabbers, brothers who died a day apart. A few weeks later, we treated our elderly dog, Sparky, to his own bowl of macaroni and cheese before saying our goodbyes. Nine-year-old Elias hugged the blind and nearly deaf dog, whispering, “See you in another life, brother.” Louisa, 14, disappeared into her bedroom to escape the sorrowful scene. Sebastian, 12, put a consoling arm around his younger brother’s shoulders as my husband and I left for the vet clinic.
Even though we tried to prepare ourselves for the eventuality of Sparky’s death, asking the vet to euthanize our 16-year-old family pet was one of the most emotionally difficult decisions I’ve had to make. Fortunately, the kids were old enough to understand why we made that choice. We were able to talk about it, and allow each other time to express our grief in ways that felt right.
truthful, meaningful experiences
Experts who counsel people with ill or dying pets recommend the approach we took. Jeannine Moga, the social work program director at the University of Minnesota’s Veterinary Medical Center, says parents should be truthful with their kids about what’s happening, and avoid using fancy medical words or trivializing the situation.
“For most kids, their first meaningful experience with death is when a pet dies,” Moga says. “It’s a really important opportunity for kids and parents to have an honest conversation about why death happens, what it looks like, how we let go of those we love, and how we remember those we love.”
Moga says kids should never have to make the decision to euthanize a pet — that’s a parent’s responsibility. But they should be encouraged to decide how they want to say goodbye to a pet, and how they want to remember that pet, whether it’s by creating a scrapbook, drawing a picture, or assembling a memory box.
Parents should alert teachers when a family pet is ill or has died, because it often causes students to lose concentration or sleep. They also should encourage their kids to continue to express their feelings after a pet has died, and to ask for help if they need it.
“It’s something we don’t do a good job of in this culture, but it’s extremely important for kids,” Moga says.
With all the potential for stress and sadness, why do families take on the responsibilities of pet ownership? How does having a pet benefit kids, besides providing the chance to learn lessons about life and death?
Moga says most research on the psychological benefits of pet ownership involves younger children or adults, not kids in the 12 to 18 age range. But it’s clear from those studies that animals can be a tremendous source of social and emotional support within the family and can provide youth with a sense of security.
Although research shows that moms are the ones in the family who end up doing most of the pet care, kids do get the chance to take on responsibilities and learn care giving and nurturing behaviors. For teens, having a pet can be a way to connect with parents in a neutral, non-contentious way.
“‘Let’s take Rocky for a walk.’ That’s important shared time with adolescents, even if it’s not verbal,” Moga says.
Before getting a pet, parents can involve their kids in the research about what type of pet would fit the family’s lifestyle. Factors to consider include how long a pet will live and how much it will cost to care for it.
My husband, our three kids and I knew before Sparky died that we wanted to eventually get another dog. We wanted one that would be young enough to train and would be with us for many years.
Our family pet drama had a happy ending in October when we adopted a 1-year-old poodle/daschund mix from a shelter. The kids named him Waffles because he’s warm, sweet, and waffle-colored. When I asked Elias at the end of the first day what he thought of the new dog, he told me that Waffles “exceeded his expectations.”
Elias has high standards, so Waffles should feel special. We feel special, too. Once again, we have won the doggie lottery.
– Joy Riggs is thankful for all her former pets, especially Sparky, who helped us raise a family.
The Association for Pet Loss and Bereavement
Children and Pet Loss
The Human-Animal Health Connection
University of Minnesota Veterinary Medical Center
Client Support Services