Talk to the Animals

Zoologist and animal behaviour expert, Sally Hibbard, is interested in the relationship between people and their pets. She’s a fan of frogs, scared of spiders and can be seen spotting stick insects.

Talk to the Animals: Dealing with the death of a pet

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It can be particularly hard for kids to deal with the loss of a pet.
Photo / Thinkstock
It can be particularly hard for kids to deal with the loss of a pet. Photo / Thinkstock

As a young adult I worked in a pet store. One fateful day, I saw a tiny ball of orange fluff in the kitten cage fending off its much larger cage-mates to take control of the food bowl. Apparently this ferocious little kitten was found wandering on a farm. Telling my parents I would "just keep him until he is old enough to be re-homed" and knowing I had no intention of doing so, Lawrence and I become best friends for the next eight years.
He grew to a whopping 8-plus kilos, brought home goldfish and feather dusters, terrorised the kids next door in their sandpit and viciously scratched anyone that dared look away while patting him. Lawrence was with me when I left home, and was a constant in my life through dodgy flats and dodgier boyfriends. He was my rock and I loved him.

The day I had to identify Lawrence at the local vet clinic after he was struck and killed by a car is one of my saddest. At the time I was setting up my own pet store, and I remember that same day sitting on a stool while friends and family worked around me painting and helping with the fit out.

I couldn't believe that everything was just going on as normal. I was in a state of shock and felt like nothing would ever be the same again.
I am certainly not alone in these feelings of grief and loss for a much loved pet, and although there is no magic solution, there are some ways to cope at such a difficult time

Strategies for coping with the loss of a pet:

Some people feel embarrassed by the extent of their grief or are told "it's only an animal" by others. Feelings of hurt and loss for a familiar presence are completely normal whether it is for a human or animal. Those that have not been lucky enough to have the love and companionship of a special pet may not understand your grief, so ignore any insensitive comments. Many of us will understand.

Talk to others, particularly pet owners about how you feel. It does help to talk, whether to a friend, family member or if needed, a counsellor. Some counsellors specialise in pet grief such as www.griefsupportauckland.co.nz.

Keep active. If you no longer have your canine companion to walk, keep walking, but go with a friend and vary the route.

Celebrate your pet's life. This is whatever is right for you, from planting a tree to holding a funeral.

The passing of a pet can be very upsetting for children. A pet may have been with them as long as they can remember and it will be the first time they experience the loss of what they see as part of their family.

Strategies for helping children cope with the loss of a pet:

Don't try and cover up the loss of a pet or diminish what it means. Telling a child their pet has 'gone to live on a farm' or has run away may make the loss worse by adding a sense of abandonment and confusion. Understanding death, and grieving that loss is an important part of a child's development and can help them understand what it means to lose a relative when the time comes.

Don't immediately replace the pet. This sends a message that an animal is disposable and replaceable.

Encourage children to create something to remember their pet by. This could be a picture of a favourite time spent with their pet or planting some flowers in the animal's memory.

Don't trivialise the loss yourself or joke about it in front of your children. Even if you didn't share their attachment, making light of such an event sends a message that pets are not worthy of our respect.

If children wish to have a funeral or other ceremony to mark the passing of a pet, let them do so. This doesn't need to be a full church service, just some time taken and a few words to mark the event can help children work through their feelings.

The passing of a special pet affects us all differently. Seniors on their own for example, may find the loss particularly hard to cope with and the support of family and neighbours becomes especially important. Acknowledging the loss of another's pet and being respectful of their feelings will help and is appreciated.

Sadly, most of us will experience the loss of a pet at some stage. Overall this is a small price to pay for the joy and companionship they offer and the many happy memories they leave us with.

- www.nzherald.co.nz

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