Helping your family cope with the loss of a pet

Next to the death of a person, the death of a pet is one of the hardest things to explain to a child.

This morning when we came downstairs, one of our cats was dead. My husband called me as we were getting dressed and I guessed from the tone in his voice what had happened. We have two cats that are elderly and in declining health. But when I came downstairs and saw the white limp body of our youngest cat, all I could whisper was "not Whitey," as the tears came.

It's always hard trying to be composed for your child. When my son came down I could see the confusion in his eyes. We went to the not-yet-cold body and the questions started. Why did he die? What happened to him? Did he have to die? Questions I have no answers for. The cat was seemingly the picture of health. He was a big happy burly cat who loved to run and play. One of the hardest things about pets is, unlike people, who always have doctors involved at the end and you get some answers, sometimes when pets go you just don't know what happened. Yesterday he seemed fine.

"This is the worst day ever," my son said sadly as he poked at his breakfast. So we looked at all the pictures my son had taken of Whitey on his camera.

This cat always had a connection to my son because he showed up in our yard when I was three months pregnant. We assumed the beautiful white cat with odd eyes — one blue and one yellow — was someone's lost pet, but we could never get close to him. Since it was November and getting cold we got worried and borrowed a live trap. But when we caught him in the cage, we quickly realized he was not someone's pet. He was obviously a feral cat. But now he was ours. He spent that first winter never leaving our basement and I spent many hours sitting cross-legged on the floor with my growing belly, coaxing him out with food. By the spring when my son was born, Whitey was eating out of the cat bowls in the kitchen with the other cats.

And in the end he was a part of the family. Not a lap cat. That was just a little too much for him. But he would sprawl on the rug in the family room and hang with us and purr when my son petted him. Because he was a little skittish to the end, my son had to be move slowly and quietly to pet him, and was always really proud when he succeeded. I always imagined that when Whitey got to be an elderly cat he would cave in one day and crawl into my lap.

But now he is gone, and after work we will have to have a funeral. My son asked if we could plant flowers on his grave. I said of course. It's a fitting tribute for a good cat.

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What to do when your family pet dies:

Tell your child, as calmly as possibly, the truth. Trying to protect them with vague or inaccurate explanations can create anxiety.

Answer all his or her questions simply, but honestly. Parents can be models by sharing their feelings, even if they can't answer all their questions. It will be extremely difficult for a child under the age of 9 to understand the permanence of death.

Give them a chance to say goodbye in their own way: This may take the form of a memorial service or ceremony; writing poems or making drawings.

Do not replace the animal right away. Some children may be overwhelmed, especially if the death brings up other painful losses. If your child seems unable to function normally, they may benefit from seeing a qualified mental health professional.

SOURCE: The American Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry. See more at www.aacap.org.

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(c) 2010, The Morning Call (Allentown, Pa.)

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