- Pet loss can be devastating for anyone.
- Allow others to discuss their feelings and their grief.
- It is not advisable to immediately replace the pet.
Dear Dr. G.,
I am extremely stressed and not sure what to do. Let me explain. My 16-year-old daughter has been away at a sleepaway camp for eight weeks. She returns home next week. My daughter was anxious about leaving home, so I attempted to reassure her that she would adjust and that things would be the same at home when she returned. Unfortunately, everything is not the same.
We have two dogs. The older dog named Joey, who my daughter is most fond of, became very ill. The veterinarian, who we trust very much, has suggested that we put Joey down. We have been keeping Joey comfortable until my daughter Jamie returns home.
I am very scared that Jamie will come home from a wonderful experience at sleepaway only to have it ruined by the issue with Joey. I am also concerned that Jamie, who reacts intensely to difficult situations, will melt down and be unable to handle the news. Jamie has not yet experienced the loss of a loved one.
Please help guide me. I am angry at myself for promising my daughter that everything would stay the same. I am so unsure how to deliver this news. Please help.
A Distressed Mother
I am so glad that you reached out to me. Your question is one that I have received many times. I understand how deeply individuals of all ages feel about their dogs. Dogs are excited to see us, no matter how bad or upsetting our day was, and are very comforting. This is no small thing.
Your teenage daughter, who is experiencing the ups and downs associated with being an adolescent, likely found much comfort in being with her dog. The news of the dog's unfortunate deterioration will be very upsetting to your daughter. There is no question about this. As for your promise that everything at home would remain the same, please forgive yourself. You were trying hard to make it easier for your daughter to separate.
Regarding how to deliver and help Jamie with this news, I have several suggestions:
1. Share the news with your daughter when she is alone with you in a safe space. Encourage her to ask questions. While you will likely want to share your own feelings with your daughter, this is not the time. This first discussion is about her feelings, so try hard to manage your own set of emotions. This is a time for you to comfort your daughter rather than for her to comfort you.
2. Do not (and it does not seem like this will be an issue for you) minimize this loss. The dog may be as important to your daughter as a sibling or a best friend. After all, who else consistently greets us with excitement?
3. Involve your daughter in making decisions about the next steps for the dog. This will empower her and it is important that she have some sense of control in this situation.
4. Hold space for your daughter. Be available to listen and sit with her over the next several days and weeks. Loss is not a one-time event. It is felt for a very long time throughout one's life.
5. Have your daughter visit the veterinarian so that she can ask questions. Let her decide if she would like to say goodbye to her beloved dog in or outside of the veterinary clinic.
6. Do not engage in erasure. Erasure occurs when one puts aside all memories of a loved one after death. This is never helpful. Allow pictures of the dog to remain where they currently are and continue to speak about the dog throughout the days and years that follow the death of the dog.
7. Decide as a family how you will celebrate the life of the dog. These sorts of rituals are very important in the recovery process.
8. You do not need to immediately replace the dog. Grieving is a natural and inevitable part of the life cycle. Let your teen experience that.