When a child loses a pet

3 December 2019

When a child loses a pet

  • Positive Parenting
by Michael Grose

New Zealand singing sensation Lorde created a social media frenzy recently when she announced that she’s putting her new recording on hold while she deals with the death of her dog.

The immediate reaction of this writer was not supportive. I shared a link to an article in UK newspaper The Independent titled “Lorde delays new album release after death of dog”  and commented “Sorry, is it just me or can others see a problem with this? 7.6 million followers (presumably mostly young) are influenced by her. A little more resilience may be in order. Am I being too harsh?”

Presumably yes, if the majority of the replies I received were an accurate indicator of the general public’s opinion. This reply from a lady named Sarah got me thinking, “…is she saying that it’s ok to grieve……?” A great reminder that as humans become closer to their pets we also need to grant ourselves permission to grieve when they pass away – especially children and young people.

Kids grow close

Children’s pets come in all shapes, sizes and types. Whether it’s a goldfish in a bowl, the family pooch or a horse kept in a nearby paddock, kids grow attached to their pets.

When I was 11 I bought a guinea pig at my school’s fete. I was excited as this was the first pet that I’d owned. With my father’s help I built an enclosure in our back yard. I cared for my new furry friend with great earnestness– feeding it daily, cleaning its enclosure each weekend and letting it wander free range every now and again.

Unfortunately, a friend’s dog clawed its way into the enclosure and killed my guinea pig. It was my first close-up experience of death. I moped around for days, thinking that I’d never recover. Fortunately, my mother allowed me to be sad rather than insist that I get over it. Her patience was a blessing.

Nothing is permanent

Keeping pets teaches kids so much about living a fruitful life, including caring for others, taking responsibility and being organised. However the biggest lesson for kids about the whole pet-keeping caper is that nothing in life is permanent. Even good things come to an end. There is a transience to life that can be both wonderful and hurtful. The passing of a loved pet can teach kids to value what they have rather than wish it away when the going (feeding, caring, cleaning the pen) gets tough.

Attachment can hurt

The lesson of loss is a harsh but important one for kids though it can be difficult for a child to absorb at the time when a cherished pet passes. It can feel like nothing will ever be the same. But kids move on. They learn that these difficult feelings pass over time, which is a vital resilience lesson to absorb.

Permission to feel

The attitude of parents when kids experience loss influences how they cope. My mother intuitively knew that she needed to give me time and space for my hurt to heal. Her empathetic response gave me the permission I needed to grieve and be genuinely sad about my loss. The fact that I remember this incident and her response after many decades shows the impact of both the event and her response.

Giving permission to experience feelings is particularly important for boys who’ve been conditioned for centuries to bury their sadness rather than recognise it, feel comfortable with it and carry it with them. When sadness is denied it almost always shows itself as anger – it’s got to come out somewhere.

There’s a lesson to be learned from Lorde’s response to her dog’s death. Putting an important recording on hold (which would impact many people including those whose income relies on her) may be an extreme response, but grieving is a process that takes time, requires mental space and needs others to make allowances for personal struggles.

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Michael Grose

Michael Grose, founder of Parenting Ideas, is one of Australia’s leading parenting educators. He’s the author of 12 books for parents including Spoonfed Generation and the best-selling Why First Borns Rule the World and Last Borns Want to Change It. His latest release Anxious Kids, was co-authored with Dr Jodi Richardson.