Did Fido go to heaven or did he chew too many slippers and head south for eternity? Welcome to ParentalGrit, where today we’re diving into the complex parenting black hole that is parenting young children through times of loss, specifically a family pet. If you have recently lost a loved and adopted family member, I am incredibly sorry for your loss. Also, this may not be the blog post for you as we’re navigating through the pain the best way I know: with inappropriate humor and sarcasm. In the future, I absolutely will write a thoughtful, well-researched article on legitimate ways to manage these difficult times with children (knowing that I will inevitably face them with my own girls and I need to start thinking about this), but today we’re wading on the lighter side of the issue, with all the ways not to deal with death with kids. You know, when my wife was a little girl, she grew up in the country with goats, chickens, and all sorts of assorted pets. Her and her brothers grew exceptionally attached to one of these goats and it was treated like an adopted member of her family. One morning, the kids decided to head into the pasture to play and leave the goat behind; my wife, quick thinker that she was, decided to tie the goat on the front porch with a spare dog leash that was lying out. The kids ran off to play for several hours and, unfortunately, came back to a poor little billy hanged off the side of the porch. My poor wife did not account for the goat jumping off the porch and also badly misjudged the length of the leash; as one can imagine, this was quite the traumatic sight and experience for her and her brothers to walk into. What does this have to do with today’s post? I have no idea, but I always feel it’s worth confessing that I knowingly married a goat murderer and even allowed her to mother my children. Without further ado, here are several of the ways not to deal with the death of a loved family member with your youngins…
All goldfish look alike, right? What better way to deal with the loss of a goldfish then to not deal with it all? Several parents opt out of sharing with their children that feeding their special little Nemo an entire bottle of food in a single serving maylead to a gluttonous binge and an unrecognizable, upside-down-floating blob in a few short hours. While this strategy may pass muster from an ever distracted toddler with goldfish, it does not work so well with canines and felines. It turns out that a quick trip to the Humane Society or pet store will rarely net you a perfect facsimile to sneak past your munchkins. Sure, you can try spray paint (a la Meet the Parents) or haircuts or elaborate stories about the puberty your cat endured that morphed it from a Tabby to a Siamese overnight, but ultimately this is a pretty weak strategic ploy to attempt on a toddler. This is also even less effective on great grandparents.
Ignore, Ignore, Ignore
As a male, one of my preferred methods of dealing with anything emotional is to blindly close my eyes and ignore it forever until it goes away. Sometimes it works…and often times it blows up in my face at an unimaginable magnitude. Hey, you win some and you lose some. Using this strategy, you simply tell your toddler that there must be a glitch in the matrix and he or she never even had that hamster that accidentally fell in the sump pump. Honey, I have no idea what you’re talking about? Why would we ever have a pet rat that runs on a wheel 18 hours a day? I think maybe you’ve been dreaming for the past two years. If you’re willing to sabotage your own child’s sanity, then this may be your best bet for managing grief.
Blunt Force Trauma
Rather than use of these other strategies to worm your way around a challenging conversation, it may be best to catch the little off guard with nothing but the truth. Without any context whatsoever, a parent can simply stick to the facts about the family parrot that swallowed the car keys.
Kid: Where’d he go?
Parent: He died.
Kid: What does that mean?
Parent: He’s dead.
Kid: But where’d he go?
Parent: Under the cedar mulch by the tree out back.
Kid: But why?
Parent: I don’t know what to tell you kid, I’ve laid out all the facts.
Umm…good luck with this strategy. We can probably call this one the “Oregon Trail” method as I’m sure that’s the only way they could treat something like this in the 1800s.
The Farm in the Sky
This strategy is actually used with some frequency among parents I know, as an imaginary Dog or Kitty Farm in the clouds seems like the perfect dodge of any difficult but meaningful conversation about loss. So, Daddy, where is Fuzzy the Ferret hiding? Well buddy, Fuzzy went on an all-expenses paid one-way trip to Ferretville. It’s like DisneyWorld for ferrets, as Fuzzy will be surrounded by all his ferret friends doing all the things ferrets love to do. There’s ferret rollercoasters, ferret steamboat rides, and ferret funnel cakes galore. No, son, don’t worry about ol’ Fuzzy; he’s much happier in his new home. Can we visit him? Ummm, well…
The Prevent Defense
Here’s a losing strategy that can nonetheless be your ally if you’re trying to deal with the topic of death like a moron. Never let your kid get attached to anything. Sorry, kids, there will never be pets in this house (grandparents either, for that matter). If you never allow your children to form a bond with an adopted family member such as a pet, then you can at least procrastinate the conversation until their 20’s or 30’s. Maybe? Sorry kiddo, not only can we not have a pet, but let’s not get too attached to anything. I don’t care if it’s a pet, a toy, or even me sweetie, we’re shooting for negligible amounts of affection in our life and as much emotional distance as possible. Buyer beware, this strategy just possibly, maybe, potentially could be a net negative long-term for your children.
Well, none of this may help you in your own struggle with consoling a little ankle biter after experiencing a tough loss in the family, but at least you now know what not to do, right? The reality of dealing with loss—of any kind—is recognizing that loss can only manifest itself alongside incredible affection. If your child’s having a tough time processing the information, understand that grief occurs after value and that the loss (and the comprehension struggles that may ensue) reveals how worthwhile the relationship was in the first place…a massive net-gain, in any scenario. One of my guiding principles of parenting is the following: if you’re pausing to reflect on the struggles and challenges that rise from parenting, then you’re doing it right. If you’re facing this predicament currently, I’m genuinely sorry for your loss but can absolutely and unequivocally assure you that the path you choose for this stressful time will be the best for your child because you’ve been reflective in your parenting. Intentional parenting is certainly not perfect parenting, but it means you’re moving forward with effort and purpose.