5 Tips to Help Your Family Cope with Losing a Pet

5 Tips to Help Your Family Cope with Losing a Pet

Posted by Dr. Julie Kinn, Deputy Director of T2’s Mobile Health Program, on June 2, 2017

Military families often include a family pet. With frequent changes of station, pets are the friends that always move with you. Plus, Fido understands your odd duty hours and is willing to keep you company at 3 a.m. whether you are waking up or getting home.

Eventually, having pets also means at some point, you’ll need to help your family cope with their loss. Given how important pets are to us, it’s understandable that this loss can feel like a punch to the gut. While it’s never easy, here are a few tips for coping with the loss of a pet:

  • Know that there is no “normal” way to grieve. Like with any type of grief, it’s healthy to have a variety of reactions. For example, some members of your family might be visibly devastated, while others may keep their emotions inside. Allow each family member to grieve in their own way. On top of the sadness they already feel, no one needs to feel guilty about how much (or how little) they are crying.
  • Be prepared for your children to talk about it. Constantly. Have your young children ever requested (or demanded) the same book or TV show over and over again? This is how they make sense of the world: when kids experience something new, they like to re-experience it until they understand it. Unfortunately, in the case of sad life events, kids re-experience these by asking you the same questions over and over again (“But why did he die?”). Your children are doing a couple of different things here. First of all, they are trying to understand this event, but they’re also trying to figure out how life and death work. This is a pretty big challenge, right? It makes sense that they may continue to process it on-and-off for a few months.
  • Be consistent and concrete. Don’t avoid the conversation or make it seem mysterious. Instead, give consistent answers that help your kids understand the reason for the death. It’s more helpful to hear “Fluffy died because she was very old and had a stomach disease” than to hear “Fluffy was called to cat heaven”. Also, being specific helps your children feel safer. After your children realize that their pet has died, they will naturally begin to wonder about their own death and losing people they love. In other words, when your children ask why their pets die they’re also asking, “Am I going to die? Are you going to die?” It’s unrealistic to expect kids to fully understand the concept of death, but understanding that death usually happens after illness or an accident will help prevent a fear that humans might also die unexpectedly at any time.
  • Focus on the happy times. If your pet died after a long illness, it may be hard to remember the happier and healthier times. Although it’s normal to think about how much you miss your pet, it’s also good to deliberately bring up happy and funny memories. This helps your family focus on the great life your pet had and keeps these good memories fresh. Some families like participating in a ritual such as a funeral or other kind of memorial (for example, planting a tree or spreading ashes). In addition to speaking about your feelings, use this as a chance to take turns telling silly or sweet stories about your pet.
  • Know when to get help. Again, there is no one right way to grieve. However, sometimes experiencing the loss of a pet can bring up grief from other life events. If you or a family member feel so saddened that it begins to cause trouble at work or school, then it’s time to consider getting help. Consider consulting the DCoE Outreach Center online or at 866-966-1020 to connect to a therapist.

What other tips would you recommend?

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