From the goldfish won at a school carnival and gone just as fast, to the hamster who escaped from his cage and was never seen again, to the cat or dog who has been in the family for years and is now taking a final trip to the veterinarian's, the death of a pet can be a wrenching experience for both child and parent.
Rachel Biale calls it something else: an opportunity.
"Even though the death of a pet can be a sad and even scary experience for a child, it is also a chance for parents to set a model for grief and death," she says. "For most children, this will be the first time they deal with death, and it's an opportunity to teach them how to deal with painful experiences."
Biale is a Berkeley, Calif., family therapist and the author of "My Pet Died" (Tricycle Press, $7.95), a wonderful little book designed to help both children and parents through what can be a difficult time.
The paperback has pages of activities to help children recognize and work through their emotions, as well as a thoughtful tear-out guide for parents. On one page, Biale suggests that the child draw or paste a picture of the pet, then a couple pages later, finish the sentence: "Thinking about (my pet's name) dying makes me feel ..." Later in the book, children are asked to name people to talk to if they're feeling sad, and allows them to consider the possibility of another pet in the future.
Perhaps a little disconcerting to many parents, Biale even asks children to consider what happened to their pet's body. Such openness is important with children, the therapist says, even though it may run counter to parents' own experience as a child. If you don't give children the answers to their questions, the answers they make up may be even worse than the truth.
"Children are very literal, which is why it's important to ask and find out what the child understands," says Biale. "Ask the 4-year-old, 'What do think "dead" means?' For some, they think it's a game: 'Bang, bang. You're dead.'
"It's most important to be truthful and factual. Let the child know that it's OK to talk about anything, and it's OK to have the feelings they do."
Some other suggestions for parents:
-- Don't sugar-coat the facts. "Parents need to remember not to use euphemisms," said Biale. "Telling a child a pet was 'put to sleep' may leave the child afraid to fall asleep himself."
-- Follow the child's lead. Children may even benefit from seeing the body, said Biale. "Some children would say 'yes' because they're curious; some would say 'no.' There's no rule. Ask the child, and prepare by explaining the pet won't meow or won't lick."
-- Use more than words. "Children are not as focused on words as we are. They may want to play the death scene over and over, which may be disturbing to adults, but it's their way of working it through. Children also can express their feelings through painting and drawing, and cutting and pasting."
-- Share you own grief, but don't burden your child. "It's a fine line. It's very important for a child to see your feelings," said Biale. "But if parents are feeling overwhelmed, they need someone else besides their child for support."
-- Don't rush your child. "Grief can be a long process. We're so pushed to be the 'one-minute gourmet' or the 'one-minute parent,' but it doesn't work that way."
While it isn't going to be easy, Biale says that when handled well, the death of a pet can leave children well-prepared for the losses we all face in our lives.
A pet's death, in other words, can be a final gift of love and learning to a child.
CYBERLINKS: ChinNet brags on its home page (http://www.chin.buffnet.net) of being "The chinniest site on earth," and it's easy to believe they have the competition smoked. The site is dedicated to bettering the lives of pet chinchillas everywhere, with information on care and genetics, and links to a couple dozen other chinchilla pages as well as the chinchilla mailing list.
Gina Spadafori, the award-winning author of "Dogs for Dummies," is affiliated with the Veterinary Information Network Inc., an international online service for veterinary professionals. Write to her in care of this newspaper, or e-mail to Giori(at)aol.com.
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