The conversation went something like this:
Me: “You know, Evie, Maggie is going to have to go to Heaven soon. I know you’re a big girl. Would you like to go with Mommy and Daddy when we take Maggie to Aunt Bop’s clinic so she can go to heaven?”
Evie: “Yes! Is Heaven far far away Momma?”
Me: “Yes. It’s very very far away.”
Evie: “Ok, well I’m going to go potty as soon as we get to Aunt Bop’s clinic. I don’t want to have a potty accident on the way to take Maggie to Heaven!”
Maggie is our (now deceased) twelve year old miniature schnauzer. Aunt Bop is one of my best friends and our Veterinarian (Dr. Elizabeth Smith), and it was at that moment I realized how hard it was going to be watch my four and a half year old lose a beloved pet. I had been preparing for this day since I rushed Maggie to the Animal Clinic of Tippah County in Ripley, MS in mid-August. It is a bit of a haul, but there’s no one outside of Dr. Smith I trust with my babies. Maggie had emergency surgery to remove what we later found out was malignant melanoma. The margins weren’t good. The prognosis wasn’t good. Three to six months. I had three to six months left with the dog who had always been more than a dog to me. From day one she was my little shadow, always there for me through everything. She had been in my life longer than my husband.
So yes, I’d been preparing my heart and mind for losing my best friend. I was not prepared for helping my four year old, Evie, understand death or to help her grieve the loss of a pet who she’d always known.
Faced with the reality that I would have to handle not only my own grief, but also that of my tender hearted animal loving child I turned to the experts. I polled a few different online groups, and I was given lots of good advice. Although we are still in the midst of grieving the loss of our Maggie I wanted to pass along some of the things that have worked best for us as well as a few ideas that we will be using in the coming weeks.
- It’s ok to be sad, and it’s even better for your children to see you be sad. In the days and weeks leading up to Maggie’s death I would often be struck with overwhelming sadness and begin to cry. Being a curious four year old Evie often wanted to know why I was crying. I answered her honestly. This gave us time to hug each other and cry together. It might sound better to “be strong” for your kids, however, letting your children see you be vulnerable and sad teaches them that it is okay to be that way.
- Allow your child to talk about their lost pet as much, or as little, as they want. There are days when Evie wants to talk about Maggie. Often this will start with her counting our dogs, and after she counts three instead of four she wants to talk about how Maggie went to Heaven. Other days she will simply come to me and say that she misses Maggie. Yes. This is hard for me, but by allowing her to verbalize her grief I am also allowing her to process it.
- Think of a suitable memorial together. This could be a tree or a flowering bush. It could even be a stone that you let your child decorate and place in a garden. Since we lost Maggie so close to Christmas, and because she was a Christmas present from my parents during a very dark time in my life, we will be turning her tags into a Christmas tree ornament.
- Utilize picture books. This was one of the best and most common suggestions we received. Oftentimes, your veterinarian will have a suitable book for your child. If not check your library. These books can put things into simpler child friendly terms that you may be struggling with expressing.
- If you are euthanizing your pet allow your child to be present. This one is very personal and very child specific. At first I was quite sure that Evie would not be present for the euthanasia. However after talking my veterinarian, who knows my child very well, we decided we would let Evie decide if she wanted to be there. We explained the process in appropriate detail. We told her Aunt Bop would give Maggie something to make her sleepy, then she would give Maggie a shot in her leg, and after that angels would come take Maggie to Heaven. Evie did have questions about some of this. She wanted to know if we could visit Heaven, and she wanted to ask about her family members already in Heaven. We answered these questions openly and honestly. I believe that allowing Evie to be there helped her understand and grasp the concept of death. Ultimately, this has helped her in the grieving process.