- The loss of a pet is a common first grief experience.
- Teen boys may feel "too old" to be comforted but lack the emotional maturity to process their feelings alone.
- Small actions can help teenage boys know they are not alone in their grief.
We euthanized Buck on a morning that was unusually cold for Southern California.
Buck was a geriatric Labrador whose body had just worn out; his back legs could no longer support his weight. His tail would wag weakly as he struggled to get up, wanting to stand, wanting to please his family; but was simply unable to.
When his family arrived at our hospital, Buck was brought in by gurney. He and his family were placed in a comfort room for a bit more time together. They all gathered around him, petting him, kissing his blocky head, rubbing his puppy soft ears, telling him what a good dog he had been. Everyone in the room was sad; 14 years is a long time to have a friend.
The two girls, one a teen and the other a tween, were on each side of their mom, alternately crying and holding each other. The dad stood next to one of the girls, alternately stroking her hair and squeezing his wife's shoulder. You could see he was trying to be strong for his family, but his emotions betrayed his stoicism when silent tears rolled down his cheeks.
At the front of the gurney, alone, was an older teenage boy. It was clear he had grown up with Buck. He stood at Buck's head, silent, unable to speak, teeth clenched, face red, a visible storm of emotions boiling beneath the surface.
I did my job and gave Buck a soft goodbye. I told the family how sorry I was and left the room so they could have a final few minutes. Every euthanasia is sad, but this is the circumstance that always breaks my heart: seeing an older boy, too old to be a child, too young to be a man, so racked with pain and so lost on how to deal with it.
For many boys, having a pet growing up is where they develop their skills at nurturing. Boys may not be as likely to play “house” or pretend to do nurturing activities like feeding or soothing their action figures. Having a pet, however, is often a boy’s first experience with what it is like to provide care for someone they love.
Through pet care, boys are able to learn how satisfying it is to take care of another’s needs and be rewarded with trust and affection. As the boy and the dog grow up together, their bond is strengthened with every walk, every game of fetch or wrestle, and every sandwich where the last bite is intentionally saved and then shared.
So when the tragic reality of time comes to fruition, and you have to say goodbye to the dog that raised your favorite boy, how can you help him process the grief he obviously feels?
Start by recognizing that boys and men tend to process their emotions differently than women and girls do. Buck’s family showed that clearly with the positions they took around Buck as they said goodbyes: The girls and mom were together, crying and comforting each other. The dad was silent, stoic, and supportive but not comfortable showing his emotions outwardly.
Buck’s boy positioned himself where he could just focus on Buck and try to process everything. It was clear he needed a hug, but seeking physical comfort from a parent can be awkward for a teenage boy. So he did what felt best—he moved to where no one else was and isolated himself.
It is common for men to isolate themselves in grief and attempt to process things internally while women are more inclined to seek companionship to discuss their feelings. It helps to let the boy know that you are hurting too, his feelings are real are valid, and it is normal to feel pain, anger, and sadness all at the same time. This message can be received and held on to for the next several days.
You can offer to listen if he wants to talk, or maybe just offer to be nearby. Simply watching TV or doing a task together can be a source of comfort that lets him know he isn’t alone. Also, let him know there isn’t a set timeline and suggest that when/if he wants to talk, you are available.
Don’t be surprised if your boy becomes studious and rakes the yard, or mows the lawn, needing something to do. Having a task to focus on can be a welcome distraction until the pain isn’t quite so raw.
Finally, boys will often model their dad’s behavior in uncertain situations, so be aware of that and don’t do anything you don’t want your son to emulate.
Growing up with a pet is often a boy’s first experience with learning how to be nurturing. Losing a pet is often a boy’s first experience with learning to process grief. As a parent, you showed him the first time how he should take care of the puppy so it felt loved and safe. He listened and his skills at nurturing naturally developed. Now, with his first experience of loss and grief, show him his emotions are valid, that he isn’t alone, and it is okay to feel everything he needs to feel. He will continue to grow up, and he will feel loved and safe.
Facebook/LinkedIn image: vlaimages/Shutterstock
Ochman, Phoebe. (2020). Male Grief: What You Need to Know
Melson, Gail. (2005). Why the Wild Things Are: Animals in the Lives of Children. Cambridge, MA. Harvard University Press.