Just a few short days ago, our beloved dog of 14 years passed away. Any parent who has ever had to grieve the loss of a pet while attempting to navigate the raw hurt your kids are experiencing can relate to how brutally painful this week has been for our family.
In truth, I had no idea how my children would react to our sweet girl's passing. I've learned that each of my kids is handling the gaping hole she left in our family differently. My oldest daughter has been in competition with me for the most tears shed. My middle one is exhibiting more anger than sadness. Our toddler doesn't truly understand what happened, but she is witnessing the emotional chaos around her, and I know that has an impact.
As I am still attempting to make sense of my own grief, it's very hard to know how to comfort my kids. But a new study out of Canisius College that looks at how children understand a pet's death is helping me. I wasn't surprised to learn that kids often see their pets as part of the family; this was most certainly true for us.
Joshua J. Russell, Ph.D., explains about kids' conceptions of their furry friends, "They often see themselves as the center of their pets' affections. They describe their pets as siblings or best friends with whom they have strong connections."
Pardon me while I sob uncontrollably for a few moments. Oh, man.
Okay, back to the research. According to Science Daily, Russell conducted one-on-one interviews with kids between the ages of 6 and 13. And he learned, among other things, that kids do understand a pet's relatively short life span. He said they "have a distinct sense of existential fairness around whether or not an animal lived until an appropriate age."
I found this interesting, as our dog was 14 when she passed, or as we like to say, became an angel in heaven, but my children have still expressed a reluctance to accept it. They keep asking why they can't see her again. But Russell claims, "Children whose pets lived the extent of their potential lifetimes—or beyond—expressed acceptance upon their deaths." He added that kids felt that putting them down, as we did with our very sick girl, "was the moral thing to do when a pet is suffering."
He added that kids whose pets passed away unexpectedly, "described it as emotionally and morally unfair, and had a much more difficult time reconciling the loss."
I don't know. I think no matter when or how you lose a pet, it's tough to reconcile; whether you're a kid, or an adult! I find myself asking why this had to happen, and how we can go on without our dog in our lives.
My husband thinks he found a way: He adopted a dog last night! My kids have been beyond excited; I'm more reluctant, although seeing their joy and excitement helps dull the acuteness of my pain over our loss.
What does the research say about getting a new animal to love?
"There were those who felt it would be wrong to move on to a new pet because they had to honor their relationships with the deceased one," Russell explains, adding that a new pet was linked with feeling better for some kids. I love when he says about the children he talked to, and new family members, A.K.A. pets, "They explained it as an opportunity to start over and suggested that replacing a companion animal is more about beginning a new relationship than erasing memories of an old one."
I couldn't agree more. We will NEVER forget our sweet dog who passed. But when one thing ends, another can begin. That is how our family is viewing our new buddy, as we still ache for the angel we lost.
Time to go cry again!
Melissa Willets is a writer/blogger and a mom. Find her on Facebook where she chronicles her life momming under the influence. Of coffee.