The Rainbow Link

Helping a child grieve for a pet

Posted Jul 19, 2016

The Rainbow Bridge is a common metaphor for “pet heaven.” When an animal has died, people will sometimes say something like, “Fluffy has gone to the Rainbow Bridge.” As the story goes, the Rainbow Bridge is located just shy of heaven. At the base of the Bridge is green meadow where pets--free of pain, hunger, and suffering—frolic with other happy animals until their special human comes to meet them, at which time human and animal cross over the bridge into heaven, paw-in-hand. Many people find comfort in the idea that our pets are somewhere beautiful, that they have been relieved of mortal suffering, that we will be together with them again.

The Rainbow Bridge is a particularly compelling story for children, and is the centerpiece of a wonderful new resource for children who have lost a pet. Written by Robin Norris and illustrated by Brendan Stratton, The Rainbow Link is an activity book aimed at helping young children process the death of a pet and grieve in healthy ways.  (The book will be most thoroughly enjoyed by a child between the ages of about 4 and 8.)

"There comes a time when my pet plays without me. . . On the other end of the rainbow."

Here are six thoughts about helping a child grieve, as inspired by The Rainbow Link.

Be sensitive

As Norris notes, parents may not be aware of just how strongly a child is bonded to a pet, and should be sensitive to feelings that a child may not have made manifest. An animal such as a goldfish, whose life may seem of little consequence to some adults, may mean a great deal to a child, and parents should avoid imposing their own preconceptions onto their children. If a child wants to mourn a goldfish, by all means be supportive. One thing I like about The Rainbow Link is that a whole variety of pets are featured in the drawings, from cats and dogs to lizards and goats and birds.

Be truthful (but cautiously so)

There is a strong temptation for parents to gloss over the death of an animal, because they believe it will be easier for the child (and let’s be honest, it might feel easier for the parent). “Fluffy the cat has gone to another home.” Or, “Fluffy is just sleeping.” But most grief counselors advise against this and recommend that parents be honest with their children about what is happening. As Norris says in her introduction, “Children may ask questions and are looking for truthful, but simple answers.”

See loss as a time of growth and learning 

The death of a pet is often the first experience a child will have with losing a loved one. Although—and especially because—it is a time of loss, it is also a time of inner growth.

Yes, grief is something we learn to do. Our first experience with grief may not be graceful or easy. As we experience different kinds of loss, and as we mature, we may learn to grieve more effectively and healthfully. Parents can do their children a great service by nurturing this growth before, during, and after the loss of a pet. (Don’t forget that anticipatory grief can be just as powerful as grief after death has occurred.)

The Rainbow Link is created with a child in mind and all of the activities encourage the child to look inward, to name or draw or color their feelings.  

Help the child create meaning

When we lose a human family member or friend, an important element of the grieving process is marking the passage of our beloved with a funeral, memorial, or some other kind of service. For example, we can help a child honor a pet by planning some kind of ceremony or creating a meaningful keepsake—a paver stone for a garden, a beautiful flowering plant to mark a grave, or a collage of favorite pictures.

Norris’ book is meant to be a memorial celebration of this kind. While providing children a way to process their grief, the book will also serve as a collection of memories. Children can draw a picture of their pet, can draw an activity their pet loved or that the child and pet shared, and can record their favorite memories of their pet.

Don’t rush it

Like adults, children need time to process a death. It may seem that they have quickly “gotten over” the loss of an animal family member, but appearances can be deceiving and a child may still be processing his or her feelings over days, weeks, or even months. Death is a time of transition, for the animal and the child alike. Be sure to check in with the child occasionally, even if the death occurred some time ago.

Remember that every child is unique and so is every loss

Like adults, every child will experience and process death differently.

The Rainbow Link provides a valuable opportunity for parents to talk with their children about “big ideas” and thus learn more about how their child views the world. Parents can explore spiritual or metaphysical questions (What happens to our animals when they die? What happens to us?) and may be challenged by their children on some tough moral issues (Why is it okay to help Fluffy die?).

“Whenever I color a rainbow, I think of my pet. . . and my pet thinks of me.”

The Rainbow Link is available on Etsy. More information can be found here: http://windwardoptimalhealth.com/