It was the day I had been dreading.
I woke up, went into the kitchen, looked at the fish bowl and saw it: Blue Sea was dead.
Our oldest son, Andrew, had received a beta fish for his sixth birthday and promptly named it Blue Sea (or “Blues” for short). I thoroughly expected the fish to die within the month.
Against all odds, Blue Sea had survived for over three years. Andrew fed his pet each day, cleaned his bowl each week, and found “pet sitters” to watch over the fish while we were on vacation. Blue Sea even moved from Virginia to Boston with us. Try making your way through traffic in New York City with a blue beta fish sitting shotgun!
But, for the last few weeks we had noticed that Blue Sea seemed listless. He even developed some sort of white sore or tumor on his fin. We were nearing the end.
And I was dreading it.
How would the kids handle this first encounter with loss? With death? How could I guide them through it?
Ways to Help Your Child Through the Loss of a Pet
1. Be Honest
My husband and I have decided to always be 100% honest with our kids. (It’s why we don’t “do” Santa in our house, but that’s another story…..) So, we knew that we were going to talk honestly with them about death.
There would be no euphemisms. No mythical farms or magical oceans. Death is real. It is sad. It is, in fact, so real and so sad that Christ came to Earth to conquer death by his death.
Unless we as humans, and that includes our children, understand the stark reality of death, we cannot truly comprehend the incredible joy of the Resurrection.
So, we told Andrew that Blue Sea had died.
2. Allow Them to Talk, Or Not
We then asked him if he had any questions. Was there anything that he was curious about? Anything that he wanted to share with us?
And, there wasn’t. At least not right then. But we made sure that he knew we were ready and willing to talk with him about this loss. When he was ready.
We didn’t talk for the sake of talking, embarking upon a long lecture on the souls of pets (or lack thereof, depending on your theological bent), how these things happen, how nothing lasts forever, etc., etc.
He wasn’t ready, and those were our thoughts and not his at the moment. So, we let him be quiet. For days.
Then, one day he asked, “What happens when animals die?” Great question, kid. Let’s talk about it.
3. Embrace Ritual
Humans are ritual beings. Rituals comfort us, they help deepen our understanding of mysteries, they tie us to our communities, they form us.
It is no wonder that there are so many rituals surrounding death.
In the Orthodox Church, these rituals are numerous, beautiful, heartbreaking, and hopeful. They are an integral part of who we are and how we view the mysteries of life and death.
While the same rituals aren’t used for pets, we can think of other actions that may help children mourn.
Perhaps a child will want to have a funeral for the pet. Perhaps they would like to have the pet buried in a certain location (depending on the restrictions of a city’s code). Perhaps they would like to remember the pet in prayer. Perhaps the child would like to have a picture of the pet on their nightstand beside their bed.
Or, perhaps they wouldn’t.
Andrew wanted to have a moment of silence before we flushed Blue Sea down the toilet. So we did.
As an introverted, introspective child, Andrew was quiet for several days. Then he wanted to talk, to hear stories, to know that he was understood.
Our job at that point was to empathize. To truly listen to both what he was saying and what he wasn’t.
5. Let Them Process Through Reading
Finally, literature can be a helpful place when a child loses a pet. Reading about a character who is going through the same experience can guide them as they process their feelings.
A New Book for Children Dealing with the Loss of a Pet
There is a new book for children to help them deal with the loss of a pet. Orthodox writer Melinda Johnson has just released a book called Piggy in Heaven.
One day Piggy, a guinea pig, wakes up in a new place. There is the most delicious grass, beautiful daisies, and no cage. Where is he?
This sweet book gently tells the story of Piggy’s first day in heaven–with new discoveries, new friends, and new hope. The charming illustrations and text are perfect for the preschool crowd, but the insights and questions raised will intrigue elementary readers as well.
I loved the deep Orthodox theology subtly woven into the book in a way that children can understand. Piggy understands that “I’m still me in heaven.” He learns that he can go see his mama pig but that his person isn’t here yet. She will be someday.
Piggy in Heaven is a beautiful book that can help children process the loss of their pet and can provide an avenue through which to raise and discuss questions about death and heaven.
At the end of the day, we made it through all that I had been dreading. Andrew experienced death and loss but also experienced the love and support of his family and, ultimately, the hope of Life in Christ.