It is ok to grieve, in fact it’s necessary

In December 2014, I was 4 months pregnant with my first child, Sophie, and having to make the difficult decision to euthanise my 24 year old horse Oakley. I had imagined we would be having ‘big fat pregnancy’ photos together – this fella was my big, brown, furry best friend. We never got our photos. We had shared an amazing journey over the past 22 years, and my heart was broken. He endured three days of colic, and while veterinarians can do wonderful things, sometimes all the medical skills in the world can’t save our pets. While his blood tests were slightly concerning, his ultrasound was more positive, but then suddenly he hit the ground and all decision making was taken away from me. He died in my arms.

I was shocked, I just could not believe it. I sobbed, I was confused, I was exhausted. Over the following days I had difficulty concentrating, and ate comfort food, often! I avoided feeding the other horses, as my main man was missing.

Then, I felt guilt. Had I done enough? Had I euthanised too early… or, worse still, too late?! I felt guilty that I had not spent more time with him. I felt anger when people said “Sorry, but he was only a horse”. Then came the relief. He was out of pain, and ‘safe’. Then I felt guilt for feeling relief. My adult brain was finding it difficult to understand my reactions, my grief, but grief is a normal reaction to bereavement. It is ok to grieve, in fact it’s necessary. I was able to grieve Oakley in the warm bubble that was only myself to worry about.

Fast forward almost 3 years. This June long weekend, Scott, Sophie and I were enjoying a carefree family holiday. Campfires, camp oven dinners, yarns and toasted marshmallows, life was great!

Back at my parents’ place however, their 12 year old cocker spaniel, Arky, was diagnosed with a mass in his lung and they chose (wisely) for him to be euthanised. Stinky old Arky that Sophie was always delighted to bear hug every time she was within a five metre radius – a common occurrence as she is with my parents three days a week while I work. She had bonded with him in her 2 year old way. My parents’ grieving process was about to begin, as was mine. But I found myself in a new area I had never been before. Explaining to my daughter that Arky was now dead. I had no idea how, or what, her understanding and reaction, or lack thereof, would be.

I have worked at Mildura Veterinary Hospital for 13 years and yet still I found myself googling ‘How do I explain a pet’s death to children’.

The first and most important message that I received was not to use euphemisms like “put to sleep” or “went away.” Those terms can confuse or scare your little one. If I were to tell Sophie ‘Arky has gone to sleep forever’ she may become scared of sleeping because she is afraid she may never wake up.

I waited for a quiet time after dinner and sat down with her and said, “Sophie, tomorrow you go to Nan’s but Arky will not be there. Today he died and tomorrow night we will go and pick a star in the sky that we can talk to when we miss him.” Her response? A nod and an “ok… can I watch Thomas now”?

Did she understand this at her age? Probably not.

For the first time Sophie went to my mother’s house this morning and did not ask where Arky was when she first entered. I know she has no concept of life and death at this age, but it is a start. As she grows, we will have this discussion many more times, and her understanding of the finality of death will develop further. Research suggests that she may grieve the same loss multiple times, as her level of awareness evolves.

Below is a list of sites I found extremely helpful. They explain understanding of death and grief in line with a child’s age.

A great basic article is ‘When a child loses a pet” by the trauma & grief network, part of the Australian Government Department of Health.

Maggie dent has a wonderful audio download for grief and loss that can be purchased for $5.00.

This track is designed to support children’s emotional growth around death and loss. Maggie tells children the story of a little girl Kate whose best friend, her rabbit Snowball, dies. This imaginary journey brings her relief for a while after the loss and also explores death from a child’s perspective as little Kate talks to her Mummy about losing her pet. Kate’s Aunty Meg then tells her the story of the magic yellow cloud, which reminds us that we always keep a place in our hearts for the people (and pets) who are special to us. For many children whose parents who do not practise a faith, and so there is no concept of heaven, death can be very final with no hope of renewal or reunion. The magic yellow cloud models the heaven metaphor without religious overtones which brings comfort to young children if there is a death of a loved one. Exploring Maggie’s website further may be beneficial.

The has a wonderful article ‘Talking about death with children’ further explaining human death.

Sometime on our adult journey of grief we need a little help. Lifeline has an informative article providing examples on what can help us heal.

I hope you find this article helpful. We are always here to help guide you through the grief that is a pet’s death, and if required, can find you further help in your journey.

Briady Ferguson.


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