Saying Goodbye to a Pet: Tips for Helping Kids Navigate Loss

Saying Goodbye to a Pet: Tips for Helping Kids Navigate Loss

Last Sunday our cat, Nola, was acting really sick. 

My husband and I took her to the emergency vet since it was the weekend, and they told us it appeared she had a stroke and the prognosis for recovery was minimal. We made the decision to euthanize her and cried as we said goodbye. 

Nola was a special part of our family. 

We rescued her as a kitten from the streets of New Orleans (NOLA-get it?) on our honeymoon. She was running out into a busy street with no other kitties around, so after some coaxing and assistance from tipsy passers-by, we managed to grab her. I put her in my tote and we rode back to our hotel in a crowded streetcar. After a run to the pet store for essentials and a flea bath we hid her in our room for a few days, then road-tripped back to our new home. She was part of our adjustment to married life, always providing a source of entertainment and snuggles. 

After we had kids our relationship shifted. 

Nola’s grumpy old lady personality wasn’t as funny when she was swatting at our curious toddlers. Cleaning up inevitable messes that come from pet ownership was much more annoying when piled on top of the constant demands of little ones. But Nola continued to be our faithful cuddler every night once kids were asleep, providing comfort and companionship. 

Nola was always a bit nervous about the energy and clumsiness of kids. We taught them to wave “hi” to her and talk to her rather than try to grab her when they were too little to know how to be gentle. They felt very accomplished when they were a bit older and they did gain her trust long enough for a few pets. Nola was a consistent presence in their lives.

Our family is still processing her absence. 

On the drive home, we decided to tell the kids in as straightforward of a way as we could what had happened. We avoided saying “she went to sleep” but rather explained that she had died and wasn’t coming back. We hugged them, cried together, and agreed that we wished we could have more time with Nola. 

Here are some things that have been helping us and our kids as we recover from the loss of our pet:

  • Validating their feelings. It’s okay for them to be sad, angry, or confused. We all process grief differently. Yes, we try to remind them of the good memories, but we miss Nola and that feeling won’t magically go away any time soon.
  • We had a little memorial service that night. Our kids drew pictures for her. We read a little prayer and the book The Invisible String, both of which my kids have asked us to read almost every night since. Everyone has different beliefs around the afterlife, but the simple concept that love is a bond that continues even when our loved ones are absent has been easy for our kids to understand, as well as a huge comfort. My older son will randomly say “I felt a tug on my string; I think it’s Nola.”  
  • We gathered lots of pictures of Nola and went through them with the kids. I plan to print off a scrapbook for them to revisit whenever they want instead of having to ask to look on the computer. 
  • We let their teachers and our families and friends know what happened so they were ready to be understanding as our kids experience new emotions and questions. 
  • We try to answer all of their questions as honestly and gently as we can, even when they ask them over and over. Some questions don’t have answers. We model that grown-ups don’t have all the answers and we have big feelings too. It’s okay for us to say “I don’t know”, which we’ve said a lot the last few days. 

We don’t know why we had to say goodbye right now. But we are thankful for the happy memories having Nola brought to our lives.

We hope that this experience will help our kids navigate the feelings and questions that come with grief and loss in the future. 

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Olivia grew up just outside of Cedar Rapids in Mount Vernon, IA. She moved to Pella, IA for undergrad and loved working in the library, so she continued her education at the University of Wisconsin-Madison and earned her Masters of Library and Information Science. She originally intended to be a higher ed librarian, but an internship at a public library working with kids convinced her to change her plans. After 9 years working as a full time children’s librarian, Olivia is now embarking on an exciting new chapter as a full time mama.

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