Coping compassionately with pet bereavements

We were very sad to lose our guinea pig Fudge recently. I’m a believer in trying to salvage some good from pain, so in Fudge’s memory I wanted to write about supporting children – and particularly ourselves as parents – to cope with the loss of a pet.

Child development and grief

Our guinea pig Harley as a baby

Depending on the age of your child when your pet dies, they will have different needs. They may be sad, not sad, or just sad that you’re sad. They might have questions about death. They might need routine and reassurance more than usual, and be upset if grieving for a pet disrupts their normal activities. It’s also possible for their needs to clash with your needs.

My son is currently 11 months old and keen to be kept close at the moment due to the increased pace of social life for us as a family as we’ve moved from lockdown to preparing to go back to work for me. He’s very sensitive to any shifts in my emotions, and even subtle changes can unsettle him. When I cried over Fudge, so did he. I found it helped to hold him facing outwards so he was less exposed to my face expressions.

My daughter is 3 years old and very curious about pretty much everything – we’re constantly getting why, what, where and how questions. She’s interested in my feelings but less directly upset by them. So no tears from her, but LOTS of questions about death – “Why did he die? What happened? How long do guinea pigs normally live for? The hair hasn’t died – why not? can I still stroke him? What do we do with Fudge now? Why do we bury him? When can we get a new guinea pig? Will you die? Will I die someday? Will the things in the world still be here after we’re gone? “. She also asked the same questions on repeat and to both me and my husband separately in order to check she had the facts right. Actually, that’s still an ongoing process. I’ve got less sensitive to it now and I understand the need for the questions, but on the day Fudge died I needed to take a lot of deep breaths and practice being patient. We take the approach of being honest, factually accurate and as simple as possible for answering 3 year old questions for a couple of reasons – my husband is a scientist and that’s how he answers all questions, it’s developmentally appropriate and it’s easy to keep the story straight when repeats are requested.

This article has more information on what is typical for babies, toddlers and preschoolers in terms of grief and also more ideas of how best to support them –

https://www.kidshealth.org.nz/bereavement-reactions-children-young-people-age-group

Compassion

Stroking or cuddling a pet is a great way to tune into compassion

Because love and loss go hand in hand, loss hurts as much as we loved the person (or, in this case, pet) we lost. What can help heal us is love and compassion. So I was particularly mindful in the weeks after we lost Fudge of bringing more compassion into our family life and also being more self-compassionate. For me, that means we’ve been doing more baking, gardening, walking and painting than usual as I find these activities soothing myself and my children also enjoy them. I’ve also allowed myself more downtime where I’ve had a choice – so choosing a bubble bath once the children are in bed rather than tidying my usually chaotic living room. I’ve tried to spot bubbling up conflicts before they erupt and head them off with kindness, and to be patient with irritations. I’m not claiming to have always been successful, but having a commitment to the intention and returning to it has been helpful as a guide.

Connection

I’ve written about relational frame theory in my “Introduction to ACT” page. The theory for anyone not familiar with it is that as we learn language, we also learn to link one idea with another, even if the link is symbolic rather than literal. This can be insightful when we’re dealing with our feelings, including loss. For me, any time I have a bereavement, whether of a pet or a human, the loss brings up the memories of other losses. My Dad died 11 years ago but when I was growing up he used to breed guinea pigs – Fudge was the last descendent of the guinea pigs he bred when he was alive. I’ve had more guinea pig associated Dad memories in my thoughts over the last week or two. I’ve found myself having more conversations with my daughter about who her Granda was and sharing these memories with her. Together we painted two gnomes – one to keep in our garden where Fudge is buried, and one to go beside my Dad’s grave. In that way, we can feel connected and I can feel I’ve acted on my values in symbolically including my Dad in our lives still.

Noticing and letting go

It is helpful to notice what your mind offers when making meaning of a loss as some of your thoughts might be helpful and some not. I noticed the thought of “uh-oh, losing a guinea pig before meant I was also about to lose a pregnancy – so what’s going to go wrong this time? .. Oh no wait, I’m not actually pregnant this time so that can’t happen again!” Our minds are often working on overdrive to protect us, and if we feel low can go into negative spirals. It’s helpful to stand back and observe this happen if it does and choose whether or not to engage with the thought. My mind on the other hand also offered me lots of happy memories of guinea pig moments. I chose to engage with those thoughts instead, which led me to take a trip through my photo albums and enjoy the memories.

Published by Mummy ACT

Qualified Clinical Psychologist blogging about pregnancy, miscarriage and parenting in the early years using tools from Acceptance and Commitment Therapy and Compassion Focussed Therapy during a pandemic

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