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When love at first sniff has to end

April 19, 2002|BY LISA TEDRICK PREJEAN

lisap@herald-mail.com

I was unsure how our son, who was then 6, would respond to the death of our dog, Maggie.

She had been with us since before he was born, so he had grown accustomed to greeting her when we arrived home, playing with her in the yard, buying her little presents at Christmas.

The attachment started early. When our son was born, we presented one of his baby blankets to Maggie.

It was love at first sniff.

She was, in essence, his dog ... even though in the beginning he was too young to care for her. That duty fell to my husband.

In the final days of her life, Maggie had stopped eating and could barely stand. It was difficult to see her in such pain. We talked to our veterinarian and decided that having her euthanized was the most humane thing to do.

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That day we all cried as we said our good-byes.

We buried her under a big, shady tree at the corner of our yard, close to her dog house and pen.

The next day my son was quiet. As I was making supper, I noticed he got out some paper and crayons.

Later I peeked over his shoulder.

He was drawing our yard. The big, shady tree. And Maggie. She was asleep, underground. There was dirt underneath, on both sides and on top of her.

"We're going to miss Maggie, aren't we?" I asked.

"Yeah," he said.

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Drawing pictures is one way children can deal with the loss of a pet, says Deborah Antinori, a licensed professional counselor and registered drama therapist.

"It helps them with things they may not be able to put into words," says Antinori, who developed the audiobook, "Journey Through Pet Loss" following the loss of Yoko, her dog of 15 years.

If it is apparent that your pet is nearing the end of his life, prepare your child as best you can, Antinori suggests.

Ask your child if he's noticed changes in the pet's behavior and abilities.

If you've decided to have the pet euthanized, avoid saying that the pet is going to be "put to sleep." Explain that sometimes people say this when they are helping an animal die with dignity, to not suffer.

Your child may want to be present for the procedure.

"For many children, it's better to be there. For some, it's more bewildering to have the pet taken away and never come back," Antinori says.

If you decide to allow your child to be there, ask another close family member to come along. The family member can wait in another room in case the child decides to leave the room where the pet is being euthanized. The relative should be in a room that is not the waiting room where puppies and other well pets are being brought, Antinori says.

Here are other suggestions from Antinori:

n Be patient and understanding. When a pet dies, it often is the child's first experience with death. The child may become irritable or misbehave in ways he didn't previously.

n Ask questions such as, "Is there anything you want Mommy and Daddy to know?" Antinori says. "Let them know they can come to you."

n Let your child see you cry, that it is a healthy release of sadness.

n Read "When a Pet Dies" by Fred Rogers (of Mr. Rogers' Neighborhood) to your child.

n Make a memorial to your pet, perhaps a scrapbook of photos and memories shared with the pet.

n Seek professional help if the child regresses, acts out in school, becomes overly clingy, depressed or sad.

n For more information, check out www.petlossaudio.com.

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We're going to get another dog, eventually. We want to make sure our kids are ready to take responsibility for the animal's care.

Until then, the kids have adopted my Dad's dog, Katie.

This became clear recently as I was reviewing a pet-related reading assignment with my son.

In the comprehension section, one question asked, Do you have a pet?

My son said, "Yes."

I raised my eyebrows.

The next question asked for the pet's name.

"Katie," he said, matter-of-factly.

I smiled.

Lisa Tedrick Prejean writes a weekly column for The Herald-Mail's Family page. Send e-mail to her at lisap@herald-mail.com.

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