Monday, May 16, 2011

Helping our son cope with our dog's unexpected death

This weekend didn't turn out quite how I pictured it.

Our three year old Basset Hound Max got sick all of the sudden totally out of the blue. We thought he was going on a hunger strike because he was upset about something. Bassets by nature are super stubborn animals. Max was no exception to this rule. He had gone on a hunger strike about two weeks ago for 2 days then started eating again so we didn't think anything of it. This most recent strike lasted about 5 days. Sunday night my husband took him to the emergency vet clinic. We found out he had brain cancer and masses on his eyes that caused him to go blind. The vet gave him fluids, shots to try and shrink the tumors and some medication to make sure he wasn't in pain.

This morning the staff tried to get him off the anesthesia and he wouldn't wake up. We ended up putting him to sleep.

Max was our oldest son's first dog. He was only three years old. We had to break this news to our oldest this evening when we picked him up from daycare. When I got to daycare he asked me, "why are you crying mama?" I sat him and our youngest down in a chair at the daycare and explained to him what happened. Me-"You remember we told you how Max was really sick. The Doctors did everything they could to try and help him make it but he died because he was so sick. He is up in Heaven now." Then he just started sobbing..."I want my Max. NOOOOOOOOOOOOOO! I want my Max!!!!! Then we had lots of discussion about our son not wanting Max to be in Heaven. Our oldest-"Can I take a rocket ship to get him out of the sky?" Me-" No unfortunately he isn't coming back."

Tomorrow we are going to formally bury Max in our back yard and say a prayer for him. We talked tonight that we aren't ready for a dog but would love to get another cat. We are going looking for cats on Thursday at the local animal shelter. We are also exploring ideas on how we can help our local Animal Shelter. I am thinking of selling the silicone bracelets and giving all the money to the shelter in Max's honor.

Has anyone else gone through this? If so how did you handle it?

For those who are like me and never had to deal with this. There are a number of wonderful resources on the Internet. Here is one article I found on The Humane Society web page that I thought was very helpful:

Coping With the Death of Your Pet

How to cope when it's time to say goodbye
The Humane Society of the United States
"When a person you love dies, it's natural to feel sorrow, express grief, and expect friends and family to provide understanding and comfort.
Unfortunately, the same doesn't always hold true if the one who died was your companion animal. Many consider grieving inappropriate for someone who has lost "just a pet." Nothing could be further from the truth.

Members of the family

People love their pets and consider them members of their family. Caregivers celebrate their pets' birthdays, confide in their animals, and carry pictures of them in their wallets. So when your beloved pet dies, it's not unusual to feel overwhelmed by the intensity of your sorrow.
Animals provide companionship, acceptance, emotional support, and unconditional love during the time they share with you. If you understand and accept this bond between humans and animals, you've already taken the first step toward coping with pet loss: knowing that it is okay to grieve when your pet dies.
Understanding how you grieve and finding ways to cope with your loss can bring you closer to the day when memories bring smiles instead of tears.

What is the grief process?

The grief process is as individual as the person, lasting days for one person or years for another. The process typically begins with denial, which offers protection until individuals can realize their loss.
Some caregivers may try bargaining with a higher power, themselves, or even their pet to restore life. Some feel anger, which may be directed at anyone involved with the pet, including family, friends, and veterinarians. Caregivers may also feel guilt about what they did or did not do, and may feel that it is inappropriate to be so upset.
After these feelings subside, caregivers may experience true sadness or grief. They may become withdrawn or depressed. Acceptance occurs when they accept the reality of their loss and remember their animal companion with decreasing sadness.

Coping with grief

While grief is a personal experience, you need not face loss alone. Many forms of support are available, including pet bereavement counseling services, pet-loss support hotlines, local or online Internet bereavement groups, books, videos, and magazine articles.
Here are a few suggestions to help you cope:
  • Acknowledge your grief and give yourself permission to express it.
  • Don't hesitate to reach out to others who can lend a sympathetic ear. The Delta Society offers a list of pet loss hotlines for those grieving over the death of a pet.
  • Write about your feelings, either in a journal or a poem.
  • Call your local humane society to see whether it offers a pet loss support group or can refer you to one.
  • Prepare a memorial for your pet.
You may also want to ask your veterinarian or local animal shelter about available pet loss hotlines. Explore the Internet for pet loss support groups and coping information.

For children

The loss of a pet may be a child's first experience with death. The child may blame himself, his parents, or the veterinarian for not saving the pet. And he may feel guilty, depressed, and frightened that others he loves may be taken from him.
Trying to protect your child by saying the pet ran away could cause your child to expect the pet's return and feel betrayed after discovering the truth. Expressing your own grief may reassure your child that sadness is ok and help him work through his feelings.

For seniors

Coping with the loss of a pet can be particularly hard for seniors. Those who live alone may feel a loss of purpose and an immense emptiness. The pet's death may also trigger painful memories of other losses and remind caregivers of their own mortality. What's more, the decision to get another pet is complicated by the possibility that the pet may outlive the caregiver, and hinges on the person's physical and financial ability to care for a new pet.
For all these reasons, it's critical that senior pet owners take immediate steps to cope with their loss and regain a sense of purpose. If you are a senior, try interacting with friends and family, calling a pet loss support hotline, even volunteering at a local humane society. If you know seniors in this situation, direct them to this page, and guide them through the difficult grieving process.

For other pets

Surviving pets may whimper, refuse to eat or drink, and suffer lethargy, especially if they had a close bond with the deceased pet. Even if they were not the best of friends, the changing circumstances and your emotional state may distress them. However, if your remaining pet/s continue to act out of sorts, there could actually be a medical problem that requires your veterinarian's attention.
Give surviving pets lots of TLC, and try to maintain a normal routine. It's good for them and for you.

Getting another pet

Rushing into this decision isn't fair to you or your new pet. Each animal has his own unique personality and a new animal cannot replace the one you lost. You'll know when the time is right to adopt a new pet after giving yourself time to grieve, carefully considering the responsibilities of pet ownership, and paying close attention to your feelings.
When you're ready, remember that your local animal shelter is a great place to find your next special friend."


  1. Jennifer, I am so so sorry for your loss. I think this is one of the hardest losses for anyone to deal, the loss of a beloved pet.

    The Rainbow Bridge does a nice job of memorializing your pet, but I don't think anything eases the pain.

    I am thinking of you and your family.

  2. So sorry for your loss of your beloved dog, Max. We lost Simon, our very beloved cat. It's hard, no question. Kids vary on their reactions - sometimes they don't get it, other times it's the most devastating news they've ever had. I've even seen kids giggle, because they don't know how to show the appropriate emotion. We've lost 3 cats this year. It's been rough. My kids are 12, 10 and 7. The 12 yr old takes it the hardest because she's such a cat-lover. There are books out there that can help kids understand what has happened to Max. It also helps if you have a family faith to tap into ... we believe we'll be reunited in heaven, so it's a sense of comfort for us.
    As a vet student, I never understood the people that wanted ashes back ... until I lost my first pet. Now I have a mantle full of deceased pets! My kids know that when I die, I want to be cremated, mixed with the pets and spread over the ocean. It's just a sort of closure for us. I just got the call that Simon's ashes are in ... looks like the last urn is full and it's time to choose the photos for our urn.
    Sorry for your loss. :(