Recently, Jason and I took the kids camping for 8 days in King’s Canyon. The kids and I went last year, too. It’s a fantastic vacation that our entire family does every year. In fact, my mom’s family has been going every year since she was a kid! More on our vacation later. While we were gone, we were faced with the loss of a pet, our sweet Lola.
This is Lola. Lola is a West Highland Terrier. She was my first baby. She was getting ready to turn eight. She welcomed Ethan to the family the day I brought him home from the hospital. Two years later she welcomed the twins, too.
Just recently, Ethan was talking to me about family. He told me “We have 7 people in our family.” I told him that we only have 5. He said “No Mom. We have 7. Daddy, Mommy, Ethan, Lila, Mia, Lola, and Bitty (our other dog).”
A few weeks later, the kids asked if they could have a pet. I told them that they had two – Lola and Bitty. Ethan said “They aren’t our pets Mom! They are our family!”
He’s right. She was our family. Every important event of our lives she was part of. She was always there for us. She loved us more than anything else in the entire world. And she was definitely Ethan’s dog, his buddy. He loved(s) that dog so much.
But King’s Canyon is no place for us to take the dogs. They are certain trails and spots we visit that don’t allow pets (because of bears). We can’t leave the dogs at the campsite unattended (because of bears). And come on, I have 3 young kids I have to chase around. So we decided to leave them home and have our neighbors come over and feed, play, and care for them while we were away.
We have done this many, many times before. Neither my neighbor or I ever thought anything would happen or go wrong. I left her Jason’s sister’s phone number in case of emergency (I was thinking if they house got broken into, not our dog getting sick), and also the phone number of the lodge where my aunt was staying near the campground we were camping at. Just in case.
Here’s the thing about King’s Canyon. It’s the middle of nowhere. There is no phone or internet reception. No way to communicate with the outside world except via pay phone.
So when we got an emergency call delivered by my aunt from my neighbor, we immediately thought something was wrong with Bitty. Bitty is our $7000 dog. When she was little, she got into the trash and ate some pork bones. Stomach surgery was a fortune. Then 2 years ago, she was bit by a rattlesnake and it cost us another fortune to keep her alive. She is our money-pit-always-into-something dog, not Lola.
When Jason came back to let me know that it was Lola and that she was very, very ill and wouldn’t make it, I couldn’t believe it. We decided not to tell the kids until we got home from camping.
Throughout the week, the kids continued to ask about her. We told her that she was sick, but that they doctor was trying to help her. The minute we walked in the door, they all asked “Where’s Lola?”
We sat them on the couch. I explained that Lola got very sick and that the doctor couldn’t save her. That she died and was in heaven.
WHY? That was the question Ethan kept asking. He immediately broke down and cried. No, crying isn’t the right word. He sobbed uncontrollably. Lila also cried, though I think more because Ethan was crying. I don’t believe the twins understood.
Those first few days were so hard for him…for all of us. Our initial conversation about what happened was brief. Following that, I let him ask questions that I answered as honestly as I could.
I’ve read up on the subject and here are some tips for helping explain the loss of a pet to children.
Tips for Explaining The Loss of a Pet
1. When explaining the loss of a pet, be honest and brief.
Don’t include details that might scare kids or that they can’t understand. We couldn’t explain exactly what happened to Lola because the kids wouldn’t “get” it. So we just explained that she was very sick, that the doctor did what he could, but that she couldn’t be fixed.
2. Avoid euphemisms.
Don’t use phrases like “passed away” or “went to sleep” to describe death. According to WebMD, these phrases can create confusion and a fear about going to bed at night.
3. Avoid information overload.
They don’t need to have every detail of what happened, especially if it was not a peaceful or easy death. Give them basic information, and then let them ask questions. Just remember Tip #1.
4. Help your children say goodbye.
Since we weren’t home to physically tell Lola goodbye, the kids wanted to do something for her. I helped them all write notes to her to put under their pillows. That night, angels came and took the letters to her in heaven.
Other ways of saying goodbye could be sharing stories about her, drawing pictures of fun times together, making a memorial (we found a pretty rock while we were camping that we are going to paint and write her name on, then keep in the backyard).
Ask friends for suggestions too; inevitably, one of your friends will have dealt with the same situation before.
5. Let your children grieve. And remember.
The kids still talk about Lola like she’s here sometimes. They still tell me every day that they miss her. We have pictures hanging on the refrigerator and sometimes they will walk by and say “Hi Lola”. They know she’s not here, but it makes them feel better to keep her with us.
6. Let your children see your emotions too.
After I explained to the kids that Lola had died, I cried with them. We hugged and cried together. Now we can smile and laugh about her. Share in the kids’ grieving process and help them understand that their feelings are normal. When we are laughing about Lola, Ethan sometimes feels guilty for being happy and sad at the same time. Explain that it’s okay and that sometimes those emotions belong together.
How else did you help your children cope with the loss of a pet? Feel free to leave your thoughts and suggestions to help others who might be struggling to find the right forms of expression.