In the last year and a half, two of our dogs passed away. These were beloved pets that our children had always known; at 12- and 13-years-old, both dogs were older than our children. Their losses hit us deeply, yet while we were grieving our beloved furry family members, our kids were really grieving for the first time.
Here are some strategies that helped us all through the grieving process. Please take what you find helpful and ignore what you don’t; every family grieves differently, and what works for us may not be a good fit for you.
Make a Remembrance Book
When our 12-year-old lab mix passed away in March 2020, we suddenly had plenty of time to sit with our sadness. My kids were four and seven at the time, and kept asking to look at photos of her on my phone. This inspired me to make a photo book, a tangible item they could flip through whenever they missed her. I went online, uploaded at least 100 photos of her through the years, and set to work. Instead of organizing them chronologically, I grouped them together by memory. From her days on the beach when we lived in Florida to her Alaskan adventures, from puppy days to when she was old and gray — all of our memories fit together like a mosaic, and it only made sense to have the book reflect that. Making the book also allowed us to sit and remember our happy memories, easing the weight of the grief. They’ll often pause in their day to flip through, either looking at the photos or reading the memories, and it continually gives all of us comfort.
Hanging a photo on the wall or placing one where everyone can easily see it is also helpful, as it helps ease the feeling of emptiness where once there was a comforting presence.
Read a Book
As one of the resident bibliophiles here at Knoxville Moms, I often turn to a book whenever I’m struggling. Since I was a child, I’ve had Cynthia Rylant’s Dog Heaven. This book always gives me comfort, even as I cry through reading it. It also gives all of us permission to cry; I’m a big believer in letting our kids see us healthily process emotions, modeling behavior for them.
Buy a Special Lovey
My dad passed away before I knew I was pregnant with my first child, and so my kids have never met him. My mom and sister gave me a gift of a special Build-A-Bear they’d named Grandpa Bear, who had two hearts because they both wanted to add one, and whom my kiddos could hug whenever they missed the Grandpa they never got to meet. Grandpa Bear is a fixture around our house, sometimes joining us for dinner or a movie.
When our 13-year-old dog passed away last week, a friend of mine dropped off a care package for us. It included chocolate (always helpful while sad), a sweet note, and an adorable unicorn in an ice cream cone squashmallow. It’s whimsical and fluffy, making us laugh and quote Despicable Me. My eldest, now eight, decided to name his unicorn after our dog, and hug it whenever he missed her.
A stuffed animal or lovey, whether it’s whimsical or looks like the pet, is a tangible object they can hug whenever they’re feeling low or missing their pet.
Visit Mr. Rogers’s Neighborhood
I grew up with Mr. Rogers, and often use his wisdom and gentle nature as a guidepost when interacting with children. There is an episode with a fish dying on the original Mr. Roger’s, as well as a Daniel Tiger episode with a similar plot. It’s always helpful to remind ourselves and our kids that what we’re feeling is normal, and that other people have gone through similar things. Watching these episodes or episodes of your child’s favorite show that discuss death, can be helpful and a reminder that they aren’t alone in their feelings, and neither is their family.
Draw a Picture
I often process my own emotions through creative pursuits, whether that’s writing it out, drawing, or painting. After our 2020 loss, I painted a picture of our recently deceased dog in heaven alongside another pet that died several years prior. This reminder that she was no longer in pain and not alone was comforting, and my kids really enjoyed looking at it, too. After our most recent loss, my eldest son presented us with a drawing he had made, of all three dogs together in heaven watching the sunset. Kids may take to drawing, creative activities, or even play that involves the deceased pet. This is all completely normal, psychologically speaking, and helps them process the event.