What I’ve Learned About Helping a Child Cope with the Loss of a Pet

teenager and cat walking with balloon on tight rope above clouds

When pets come into our lives, they become part of our families. In the day to day hustle of family life, pets fold into our routine and habits. In turn, we make accommodations for them creating feeding schedules, play time and exercise. Our lives with our pets weave a pattern of interdependence; as much as they need and rely on us, we rely on them, for affection, companionship, nurturing and love.

Last month, Ruby, our family cat who won over my heart seventeen years ago, died after failing health. She was a kitten when I got her, a stray kitten born in a barn. At the time, I was working at a rural community mental health center. It was a hot, humid Friday in July when one of my co-workers, who lived adjacent to this farm, brought in a basket of three kittens. Two females and a male, about ten weeks old. The basket of kittens proved to be a nice diversion from work on a summer afternoon. In a matter of hours, two of the three kittens found a home, the third was being passed over; this kitten was Ruby.

She was unique, to say the least, a medium short hair gray and white kitten with large green eyes. Her face looked as if she was wearing a mask, one side covered in gray, the other covered in white. But what made her unique was she had three legs; she was missing her back left leg, from a birth defect. She also had “mitten paws,” called polydactyl paws, meaning instead of having five claws as cats do she had six, giving her the appearance of a having a thumb. Polydactyl cats made familiar Ernest Hemingway’s cats in Key West; he had a bunch of them.

No one wanted this sweet kitten, and I knew she was to be mine. That afternoon, I left work for the weekend with my new kitten, whom I named Ruby. The name Ruby means beautiful with slight imperfections, which seemed fitting for her. Cats have 18 claws, but Ruby being polydactyl had 17 claws in spite of missing one leg. To me, this was a slight imperfection, Ruby seemed fitting.

Ruby spent the better part of my adult life with me. She became part of our family during my first year of marriage and accompanied me to my doctoral internship in rural Virginia when my husband and I had to live apart from one another. She was with me through my pregnancies and loss, becoming a mother to twins, and then welcoming two more children. Ruby was with me for four moves, several jobs, and moving four hundred miles away from family and friends. Ruby was my comfort for the better part of my adult life; she was always there.

Ruby would greet me in the morning and evening, often staying far away from the noise of young children and the chaos that follows babies and toddlers. But as she became accustomed to the girls, she learned they were a source of affection and companionship, and I watched my daughters bond with Ruby and their relationship with her began to flourish. She sought them out for affection, playtime and fresh water and ice cubes, a favorite daily ritual of hers.

And for the past nine years, Ruby became a significant part of my daughters life and routine. So when she died last month, we all felt a bit of sadness, and I felt overwhelmed with tending to my grief and supporting my daughters through their grief.

Ruby had been in failing health for the better part of a year. Visits to the veterinarian indicated she had some health issues, and with medication, she seemed to rally for a time. The biggest concern I had, was she suffering? By all accounts, likely no as suggested by the veterinarian. She was eating, drinking, interacting and seemed to be enjoying life. She had been slowing down, but with the average life expectancy of cats being 12 years, Ruby had clearly exceeded feline life expectancy, being 16 years old. I had asked the vet how will we know when it’s the end of Ruby’s life? She assured us we would know through her behavior-lethargic, cessation of eating and drinking.

Two days before she died, Ruby’s behavior changed. She couldn’t get comfortable laying down, she seemed restless, she wasn’t as interested in eating, and a once content indoor cat insisted and begged to be outside. I couldn’t help to interpret her behavior to go outside as her instinctive way to go off in nature to die alone. I think she wanted to save all of us, especially me and the girls, the pain of having to see her pass.

My husband and I debated how to talk to talk to our daughters about Ruby’s decline and eventual passing. Years ago, our family cat Elly died. Because of the ages of the girls at the time, we decided to let her go while our older girls were at school, and our younger girls napped. When the afternoon activity started up, we told our daughters about Elly’s passing over ice-cream and a family walk. What I learned from this experience is the girls had a lot of questions and felt a sense of disbelief Elly was gone; they hadn’t had the chance to say goodbye. While we thought we were protecting them, I think our grief and desire to protect our kids only amplified their confusion.

So with Ruby’s decline, we started an ongoing conversation with our daughters to prepare them that Ruby was in failing health and likely wouldn’t be living much longer. Her body was failing, and my daughters could see that. Over time, she lost weight, slowed down and seemed to exert a great deal of energy for the simplest of activities. I think this slowly helped all of us grow to accept an eventual loss of Ruby.

On Ruby’s last day, we spent time with her as a family. We held her, gave her affection and love. We did the things she loved to do; play with ice cubes in water, eat tuna fish and spend time outside, something she had wanted so much to do in recent days. Everything stopped, and we spent time with her, thanking her for being part of our family and being such an incredible gift. We cried, held her, pet her and kissed her. It was a beautiful sendoff. I was alone with her when the veterinarian came to the house; I needed to be with Ruby. It was heart wrenching and beautiful, but so emotionally exhausting. Holding her while she passed was the least I could do for Ruby after all she had given to me.

As a mom, I’ve been comparing the two situations of losing Elly versus Ruby, Ruby taught me, that my children can handle goodbyes and loss. By having them be part of the process of saying goodbye, my children were able to process, experience and understand Ruby’s death in a concrete way. I think the ages of the girls helped now they were older and able to understand and process loss differently.

Through losing Ruby as a family, we have bonded over the loss of our beloved cat and been able to support one another with our feelings, thoughts, and memories. And while a loss is never easy, I am grateful to go through it together, supporting one another and honoring a member of our family.

Here is what I have learned about the loss of a pet and helping children cope with the loss:

1. Talk about your feelings and thoughts, by doing so, you will be a role model for your child to talk about their feelings and thoughts.

2. In the event of an aging pet, talk with your child about the cycle of life, birth, and death. Share information about what is happening with your pet taking into consideration your child’s developmental age, emotional maturity, and coping skills.

3. In the event of a traumatic loss, e.g., pet is harmed by an accident or sudden death, and there isn’t time to prepare your child, focus on talking about feelings, thoughts and the shock of losing a pet. It’s OK to protect your child from traumatic details and hold back information too upsetting for a child to process.

4. Be mindful to provide a safe, loving environment for your child to talk about his/her feelings. When your child brings up feelings or reactions, be sure to spend time acknowledging and talking with your child. Also, some children keep their emotions inside and are less inclined to spontaneously process their grief. It’s important to ask children who process grief this way how they are feelings and thoughts they want to share about the loss.

5. Don’t be surprised if your child developmentally regresses after a loss. Children process emotions through their behavior. For example, a child who is grieving may become clingy, may not want to sleep alone, or find it difficult to separate from you at school or other activities. Regressive behaviors after a loss can be expected, however if these behaviors persist over a period of time, contact your pediatrician or health care provider.

6. Keep in mind the day after the loss can be particularly challenging and difficult. Routines, habits and a child’s usual interaction with their pet can elicit intense emotions with the absence of the pet the next day.

7. As a way to cope with the loss, families may find it helpful to journal favorite memories, gather pictures and create an album to remember their pet.

8. Be thoughtful when dealing with a pet’s personal items. After a loss, it can be difficult to know what to remove. Many pets have beds, special areas of the house, food/water bowls, toys collars, and leashes, etc. Seeing these items after a loss can elicit a range of reactions. Depending on your preference, you may want to save an item and donate or discard the rest. Deciding what to do with your pets items is a personal decision, however holding on to every item after a loss, may not be in you or your family’s best interest.

9. Create a special place to memorialize your pet. Perhaps a framed picture, a special keepsake, or planting a bush or tree in your yard for your child and family to visit to connect with your pet.

10. Give it some time before you get another pet. While this is a very individual choice, waiting before you get another pet allows your family to cope with the loss. Every family is different when it comes to being ready for another pet, there is no right or wrong timing, rather allow everyone to process feelings and heal.


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