4 tips to help children grieve the loss of a pet

Until 5 a.m. this Valentine’s Day, we shared our home with a sweet ginger kitty named Sophie. She was our special friend and bed warmer for 14 years. Her presence was an orange-colored angora thread woven through the fabric of our family’s life. Now we find ourselves confronted with having no choice but to traverse the rugged road toward accepting that our kitty is gone.

At first, when a pet dies there is the shock of things being all wrong. The atmosphere changes in your house. Now we wake up and there is no sleeping kitty among the covers. That spot on the couch will never again be occupied by our fluff baby who smelled like sandalwood and cardamom. The void left by the death of our beloved cat makes us feel as if our house is not completely a home anymore.

If you have pets, you know what they add to your family’s life. My daughter Nicole laughed for the first time when she noticed Sophie’s face looking down at her, one paw gingerly touching her baby belly. When Niki was 4, she told me that she was lucky to have 3 Mommies: me, Mother Earth, and Sophie whose nickname was in fact Mama Kitty.

It has not been easy to say goodbye and let her cross over the Rainbow Bridge.

Loss of a Pet Could Be a Child’s First Experience with the Permanence of Death

Losing a beloved pet engenders a special kind of sorrow. It is grief that does not go away quickly, because it is not an event of sadness but, instead, is a process of readjusting to a new reality without someone who was loved.

Children need the freedom to feel all that they do for as long as it takes. When they are allowed to be present with their feelings in an authentic way and, even better, when they know we accompany them as they move at their own pace through the process of grieving, they learn that a painful loss will gradually become more tolerable.

In our culture, we don’t do grief very well. We are often at a loss when in the presence of someone in deep emotional pain. As parents, we might have to run interference when well-meaning friends, grandpas, or aunts try to help erase the child’s sadness without realizing that there is no way to rush the grieving process.

When someone suggests to a bereaved child that a new cat or dog or hamster will fix everything, it can make them feel worse. How can you replace the one you loved so much? You cannot, he is gone. Forever. And while, yes, it is good that the kitty’s suffering is over, that does not make it any less painful that she had to die to be free.

Tears and sobs are going to come in waves so we may have to ask our extended family, or a Papa who gets nervous when there are tears, to just hang onto the boat while it takes its course. It will not hurt this bad forever, but it will hurt for as long as it does.

That said, there are things that can help during the grieving process. When our beloved dog died, as I fumbled with red eyes to find my way through the terrible feelings of loss, I discovered some practices that helped us to lessen the overwhelming quality of our sorrow.

4 Tips to Help Children with the Bereavement Process of a Cherished Pet:  

1) The Necessary Rite of Passage of a Proper Burial

The mind and heart need a rite of passage to help us comprehend that things are no longer the same. Years ago, when the vet put down another cat, he had the wise insight to ask me if I wanted to take his body in order to give him a proper burial.

When my stepchildren’s tiny turtle died, it was very important for them at ages 10 and 11 to give him a funeral. They made a little mausoleum out of marble tiles in the corner of our yard and ceremoniously laid him to rest with a heartfelt tribute. I found his food canister there once, and on the Day of the Dead, they put flowers on his tomb.   

2) A Traditional Funeral

It is tradition in Mexico — where we live — to keep the body of a deceased family member laid in state in the family living room for 24 hours after death. Relatives, friends, and neighbors come to pay their last respects. This allows the mind to comprehend that the person has transitioned out of their body. It is sad, but it helps since it gives everyone the opportunity to let reality set in.

After she released her last breath, we laid Sophie on her cat bed and arranged flowers in a vase next to her. We lit a candle that burned while Niki was in school. The fact of her death was undeniable, but we could stroke her fur and talk to her while having the benefit of still being able to see her body, the one we had hugged and loved so many years.

Once a proper grave was dug, we put on our prettiest dresses and prepared for the burial ceremony. Niki filled up a little basket with magenta bougainvillea flowers. We gathered up Sophie’s toys. It made us laugh when we remembered to get some yarn for her to play with,because she never accepted that knitting was not a game. Niki said that it was too bad we could not send her off with the couch she had destroyed. The couch damage aside, recalling good memories helped…then hurt…then made us laugh…then cry and hug. That is how grief goes. That’s how it is shared.

We carried Sophie to the place under the trees overlooking the valley. We laid her down into the grave, head facing east to the rising sun. We arranged the toys and Nicole’s drawing that had been made to encourage our kitty when she got sick. We thanked our beautiful friend for being our lovie. We said everything we needed to. Then we covered her in flowers, sang a eulogy song, and finally let the dirt cover her. And when that was done, we placed a flower arrangement on her grave, a pretty one, because that was how much we love her.

3) A Candle Ceremony

Creating ceremonial space in this way connects children to a sense of reverence for the love shared with their pet while also teaching them to take care of their own sad heart.

Petloss.com is a sweet website that offers a loving space where bereaved humans can register the name of the deceased family pet and upload a tribute. It feels important to do that, like you are declaring that the life, now gone, mattered — a lot. We added Sophie’s name this morning. Our dog is listed there, too. There also is a link on the site to online pet loss counseling.

The website also offers a gentle opportunity to join with others in the solidarity of grieving every Monday at 10 pm EST, when bereaved humans from all over the world light a candle at the same time for their lost pet. People are encouraged to do this every week for as long as they feel moved.

This Monday, we lit a candle and felt the comfort of knowing that others are also celebrating their friendship with one who had brought them so much joy. This will help.

4) Honoring the Fond Memories and the Friendship

The love does not go away because our pet left her body. We now have to dispose of things like her medicine that are painful reminders that she suffered illness that led to her death. We remove them, because seeing them makes us sad. At the same time, even though it is painful with her passing so recent, it would be a mistake to avoid thinking about the good times or to try to forget everything we shared. We want to celebrate and hold on to good memories. They are what give sacred meaning to the tears. Our kids can learn to hold the joy close in their hearts even while the grief looks on.

One way to help them navigate the complexity of feelings is to give them a symbol of the friendship that encourages them to anchor their remembrance in the safe harbor of happy memories. It can be a framed photo of them with their pet on the nightstand or a symbolic object that reminds them of the special friendship for the treasure that it was.

Our kitty was a real hugger. Fortunately, among the odd fabrics in my stash, I had an old angora sweater with a hole in the sleeve that miraculously was the same color as Niki’s Sophie. I sewed it up into a soft, huggable pillow in the shape of a full heart and put it in Sophie’s spot on the bed. This morning, I found Nicole hugging it and saying, “I hope you are happy where you are now.” She told me that I can use it when I start to miss Mama Kitty. I know I will.

Cultivating a peaceful family: 5 effective ways to tend to one’s inner harmony

logo that hopefully doesnt change colorThere’s that saying you’ve probably heard — “If Mama ain’t happy, ain’t nobody happy.” I first saw it, framed, in the kitchen of my high school friend and it made me slightly afraid of her mom. It seemed like it had been hung there as a warning.

But parents, let’s be honest: We wake up a little sleep deprived from a late-night session catching up on a project, and the tension during breakfast is going to be thick.

On such mornings, I recognize this possibility looming in our kitchen when I notice how my daughter is looking at me. Just the other day, I caught that look and said with spatula in hand, “OK, yeah, I admit that I am too tired to be reliably nice this morning. Sorry in advance.”

“Breathe, Mama,” she reminds me, “I won’t fight today when you braid my hair.”

Here’s the thing: Our children are keenly tuned in to us. They know very well how to read the signs that serve as the early warning system indicating the likelihood of an impending mom-meltdown. Over time, they have become skilled at rating the level of threat like rangers adjusting those Smokey the Bear fire danger signs in the national forests: “Today’s Mom-fire threat level is Green.” (Whew, we’re OK.)

Your Brain on Stress

Researchers in the field of neuroscience are making exciting discoveries these days about the ways the body and mind are intimately connected. This gives us more insight into how it is that what we think and what thoughts we rehearse over and over actually change our brains. As our biochemistry is so changed, this has the power to affect the expression of our genes.

These findings also give us insight to why it is that when stress starts generating pressure and heat inside of us, our best intentions get vaporized.

The physiological responses that kept our ancestors safe do not help us in modern situations when we are not required to jump out of the way of a charging animal. What we perceive today as the danger that switches on our stress response is much different. Nonetheless, the nervous system still responds by shutting off the thinking and planning part of the brain — the prefrontal cortex — in order to send blood to the body so we can fight or run away.

But that is not a helpful response when it’s getting late in the morning and someone whines about losing their shoe or the garbage truck is blocking the driveway. While it might sharpen our reflexes so that we can deftly speed through traffic to get the kids to school, it is likely why the road rage happens since the part of our brains that inhibit undignified behavior is offline. (“Mom, you said a bad word to that guy!”)

Stress makes it more likely we will yell at our kids in spite of our best intentions to be the Zen-Mommy who guides her children serenely through the morning routine as if her mind is naturally infused with calming lavender essential oil. No parent wants to be the source of stress or bad times in the family, no matter how much responsibility, worry, or fatigue we are grappling with. But the truth is: When we get triggered, it affects our children. When that happens, we feel regret and add a black mark to our list of our failures.

harmony-balanceCreating Stress Resilience

What if there is a way to naturally achieve resilience to stress and to be easily able to access our inner resources? The good news is, it is not that hard to achieve if you can take steps to give your inner life the attention required. Your family life will improve in delicious ways if you do.

We show up to the parenting journey carrying the baggage of our own histories: the fears, traumas, limiting beliefs, self-doubt, and those less-than-elegant, knee-jerk reaction tendencies. When the time comes to settle down, we unpack all that and then go about our business of creating a family.

If physical clutter in the home produces stress, how about all the emotional clutter of past regrets, hurts, sorrows, and traumas that we stuffed into the overfilled drawers of our minds? Imagine what a relief it would be to have the inner spaciousness that would allow us to breathe before we speak, or to listen mindfully so we can perceive the heart of the matter instead of reacting to what triggers us.

Fortunately, there are now several highly effective self-help techniques that are great tools to eliminate the internal clutter and create more emotional freedom and space, including these 5 effective ways to tend to one’s inner harmony for a happier home:

  1. Meditation — Research is finally catching up to the wisdom traditions that have long known the value of sitting quietly. Owing to the brain’s capacity to form new neural pathways, called neuroplasticity, scientists have found measurable differences in the brains of meditators. Higher brain functioning in the prefrontal cortex is enhanced, cortical tissue is made thicker — that’s really good — and parts of the brain that engender calm also become larger and more active. The good news for busy people is that according to the research, it is better to practice just a little each day versus half an hour every once in a while. Even taking just 1 minute every day to calm your physiology by taking mindful, slow breaths is going to help you. A dedicated meditation practice has the power to help you release burdens and create real calm.
  2. Emotional Freedom Technique (EFT) and Tapas Acupressure Technique (TAT) — Also known as Meridian Tapping, EFT is a form of counseling intervention. It is a powerful way you can dramatically reduce your suffering quickly. It consists of tapping with your fingers on specific acupuncture points on the head and torso. Research has shown that EFT causes lasting improvements by alleviating trauma physiology. Tapping has even been shown to cause immediate changes to blood chemistry, which is truly remarkable.  There are many resources on line to help you learn how to do EFT. TAT also engages the energy system of the body to release strong feelings, negative beliefs, and trauma. Unlike EFT, TAT does not require you to talk about what is bothering you.
  3. Yoga — It’s not just exercise. According to trauma researcher Bessel Van der Kolk, PhD, when practiced regularly, yoga can profoundly help heal trauma and stress, especially when practiced along with mindfulness meditation.
  4. The Forgiveness Challenge/Opportunity — Psychologist Jack Kornfield, PhD, describes how, when he was training to become a Buddhist monk, his teacher gave him the practice of spending 5 minutes forgiving someone, 2 times a day for 6 months. In my experience, this has been helpful to effectively get through all the emotions that an episode of forgiving requires. This powerful practice liberates one from the need to keep inventory of past betrayals and disappointments.

When we do the inner work of unburdening ourselves, we can show up for our families in a whole new way with more resilience to face the traffic and noise of daily life and better able to “be the peace” that makes home a safe haven where our children can thrive.

Meditating in the Shower & Balancing Technology Use…

This post is written by Stephanie Petters, coordinator of the API Reads program:

Nurturing the Soul image (2)Come on over to API Reads, on GoodReads, where we’re discussing the last few chapters of Nurturing the Soul of Your Family by Renée Peterson Trudeau.

API Reads is more than club for people who love to read books. It’s a place to share concerns and ideas to strengthen the connection to our children and families. For example, one reader posted the question, “Has the book inspired you to make any changes?” This is one of the responses:

“I’m also trying to take better care of myself. I have my first session with a personal trainer today! I’d like to start meditating, but with a baby who hates naps it’s hard to find time when I know I’ll be able to sit quietly, so I’ve been trying to make my showers meditative. We’ve also started having daily outdoor play time, and I’ve been trying to make sure we have some relaxed family time on the weekend.”

What else have we been discussing? How much technology can affect your family life, whether it is your friend or foe, and how can you help find a balance with it. Also how nature can play a role in balance.

“Yes, like you and Lex, it is harder for my husband to unplug. He loves video games and drawing, which he does on a tablet. During this, he usually has a movie or TV show in the background. There is nothing inherently wrong with these things; it’s how he enjoys himself. And he does take breaks to play with our one year old. We also have dinner together — tech free — and are making an effort to do the same with breakfast. At the same time, when we go on vacation and don’t have our machines, I do feel so much more connected.

I’m not sure how to deal with this imbalance in media use. I don’t find it ideal, but at the same time, my husband is at home, kind and attentive when he needs to be. It doesn’t seem worth a struggle. Thoughts?”

Share your ideas and join the discussion!

Our next book for discussion is for couples, Getting the Love You Want by Harville Hendrix. It starts in September.