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Pets

10 Family-Focused Pet Remembrance Ideas

By | Grief/Loss, Pets

Pets have a special place in our hearts. When we lose one of our furry family members, every person in the family is affected, some more than others. As a parent, following the loss of a pet, it’s valuable to help your child learn how to mourn and grieve the loss. For many children, losing a pet will be the first experience they have with the pain of loss. Helping children remember, memorialize, and properly grieve a beloved pet teaches them how to process grief in a healthy way so they can do it again the next time the pain of loss visits them.

According to Dr. Wolfelt, a noted grief educator and counselor, “Any child old enough to love is old enough to grieve. And many children love their pets with all their hearts. As an adult, if you are open, honest and loving, experiencing the death of a pet can be a chance for children to learn about both the joy and the pain that comes from caring deeply for pets or for people.” This is a lesson they will take long into their adulthood and will pave the way for healthy grieving habits.

Let’s discuss 10 family- and kid-focused ways to remember and memorialize a pet that will help focus your and your child’s grief in productive and healthy ways, allowing everyone to say goodbye, process the pain of loss, and move toward healing.

10 Family-Focused Pet Remembrance Ideas

Before we begin, it’s important to take your child’s age into account when selecting any of these activities for your family. You may do some with a younger child and others with an older child. Or, if you’re comfortable with it and feel that it’s right for the entire family, do them together. The most important thing is to allow your family the opportunity to mourn and express the feelings of sadness that may be growing inside.

Share Stories

Let’s start off with something simple, easy, and good for everyone – sharing stories and allowing each family member to tell stories about the family pet. Tell the funny stories that you all know. Remember the moments when the dog knocked over the card table, dumping the contents, or laugh about the times you bathed the cat, making him look like a drowned rat. This activity will make you laugh and cry, but most of all, it will bond you together in your grief and allow each of you to talk about your feelings for your pet.

Plan a Memorial/Burial Ceremony

While funerals do not bring an end to grief, they are an important rite of passage and give us a certain measure of comfort. If this is the case for you, chat with your child about planning a small burial or memorial ceremony for your household pet. This could be as simple as having a small family gathering with a few words spoken, or you could invite friends and neighbors to take part, turning the event into a full celebration of your pet’s life. You could choose to bury your pet with his favorite toy or bedding or even invite your child to make an item to bury with your pet. The ceremony would allow you as a family to reinforce the importance of your pet’s life while also intentionally marking its death.

Create a Memory Album

Memory is a funny thing. After a period of time, we begin to forget – what our old house looked like, what our first grade teacher looked like, what our childhood pet looked like. That’s one reason why visual reminders are so powerful. They help us recall what we might otherwise forget.

To create a visual reminder for your kids, consider gathering up photos of your pet and allowing them to each create a scrapbook. Or you can create a scrapbook for the entire family, allowing each person to participate in its creation. Alternatively, you could place photos of your pet in a special place in your home. You could even create a shadow box and fill it with your pet’s collar, tags, photos, or other special keepsakes. In some ways, creating this type of memorial gives your kids something tangible to hold onto or look at, which is incredibly valuable during the grieving process.

Keep a Memento

Children often find safety in objects, like security blankets or a favorite toy they take everywhere. The same might be true as they grieve the loss of a pet. For instance, a child might find it helpful to keep the pet’s collar or sleep with its favorite toy for a while. Alternatively, you could place a photo of your pet next to the bed or help the child make a bracelet or necklace that spells your pet’s name. All of these will help younger members of the family feel that their feelings matter. If your child doesn’t want to do any of these things, that’s just fine. We all grieve in different ways.

Put Together a Memory Jar

Sometimes we just need a little reminder of the good times when we’re in the midst of the hard times. Consider having everyone in the family write down some happy memories of your pet and place them in a jar or bowl. Then, when someone is really missing your pet, you can pull out a memory and smile at happier times. This activity will allow everyone the opportunity to recall the good times and process what they’re feeling in the safety. You can either write down a memory for a child too young to write or have them draw a picture instead.

Create a Tribute Video

For some, a visual reminder is incredibly helpful. If it’s best for you and your family, put together a tribute video of your pet, using photos, audio, or video elements. Invite your kids into the process, and you might even add in a few family stories, like remembering the day you brought your pet home or some its more infamous escapades. Then, take time to watch it together as a family, allowing each person the opportunity to remember, smile, or cry if needed. Also, a video can be watched when the kids are older if they want to reminisce about your beloved pet.

Get Creative with Writing and Drawing

For some children, drawing a picture or a pet or writing a letter to a pet are helpful exercises. It helps them feel that they are communicating their feelings to the pet who is gone, and as with adults, sometimes you just need to get something off our chest. Another option is to write poems or short stories about your pet, perhaps giving them fun and amusing adventures or just writing down your feelings. Either way, creative expression is a helpful activity for anyone who is grieving and will help you process the loss.

Make Remembrance Jewelry

This is a simple activity that may help your child feel close to your pet at times when grief hits. You could order a special necklace or bracelet online that has a paw print or a photo of your pet. Or, you could involve your child in the jewelry’s creation by gathering beads, pendants, and other materials. Then, you can spell out your pet’s name or use charms to customize it.

Read Helpful Books

Books are a great way to teach children. That’s why we use them in our homes and in our schools. Story is powerful and can teach important lessons in a simple way. Consider finding a few books that will help your child deal with the loss of your family pet. A few books to look into are “The Tenth Good Thing About Barney” by Judith Viorst, “I’ll Always Love You” by Hans Wilhelm, and “Cat Heaven” or “Dog Heaven,” both by Cynthia Rylant. These are just a few to get you started. Check out your local bookstore or shop online to find an option that’s good for your family.

Mark the Anniversary

By taking time to mark an occasion, we acknowledge that date’s importance to our lives. We do this with birthdays, anniversaries, and other life events. Consider whether it’s appropriate and helpful for your family to mark the anniversary of your pet’s loss. That could be at the one-year mark or it could be the one-month mark. Either way, sharing a story, reading a book, or looking at photos can help your child realize the value of remembrance and that your pet was a valuable and irreplaceable part of your family.

No matter what you decide to do, that most important thing is to talk about your pet with your child, often and with love. Let your kids know that while the pain will eventually lessen and perhaps go away, the happy memories will always remain. When the time is right (best not to rush this), you might consider adopting a new pet — not as a replacement, but as a way to welcome another animal friend into your family.

Do Animals Mourn?

By | Grief/Loss, Pets

As human beings, mourning is hard-wired into our makeup. When we lose someone or something that we love or depended on, our natural reaction is to mourn that loss. But is it the same for animals? Do animals mourn?

In the case of the elephant, the answer, in some ways, appears to be yes. Sensitive, tender, and caring beasts, elephants have a highly developed ritual for mourning loss. While we won’t have the discussion of whether or not animals can feel love, we can all agree that they experience deep social bonds, either with others of their own kind or with humans.

In many ways, we can learn a lot from the mourning rituals of the elephant. Let’s take a deeper look.

First, let’s define mourning.

According to Dr. Alan Wolfelt, a nationally respected grief counselor and educator, grief and mourning are two different things. Grief is internal and refers to our thoughts and feelings after a loss. On the other hand, mourning is a shared, social response to loss. It’s how we acknowledge death and honor and remember those who have died.

Second, let’s talk about the six needs of mourning.

Now that we have a clear definition of mourning, let’s talk about what Dr. Wolfelt calls the 6 needs of mourning. Wolfelt says: “Everyone grieves and mourns differently, but there are some steps along the way that we all must encounter. I call these the ‘six needs of mourning.’ You might think of them as your ‘to-do list’ as, slowly and over time, you work on actively expressing—or mourning—your grief. Meeting the six needs of mourning one day at a time will help you move toward a life of meaning and purpose again.”

The six needs are:

  • Acknowledge the reality of the death
  • Embrace the pain of loss
  • Remember the one who has died
  • Develop a new identity
  • Search for meaning
  • Receive support from others

Now, let’s discuss how elephants appear to instinctively work through these six needs.

Before we begin, it’s important to know that elephants are smart, sensitive creatures. They live in groups, self-medicate with plants, protect animals or people in trouble, and some even paint! They are complex and beautiful. Of all animals, they have the most well-documented mourning rituals. So, how do they instinctively work through the six needs of mourning?

1. Acknowledge the reality of the death

When a family group comes across the bones or body of a dead elephant, they stop and investigate. Typically, they take time to touch the bones and tusks with their trunks. Often, they are quiet and cover the body with leaves and grass (almost like a form of burial). If the dead elephant belonged to their family group, they will stay with the body for days or weeks at a time. All of this behavior is quite similar to what we do as human beings. We touch the body of our loved one, care for them, and often spend time and sit with them until it’s time for the funeral.

2. Embrace the pain of loss

Based on the findings of many animal researchers, it’s safe to say that elephants become very upset when one of their own dies. Martin Meredith, an elephant researcher, says: “The entire family of a dead matriarch…were all rumbling loudly. The calf was…weeping and made sounds that sounded like a scream…. They then began to throw leaves and dirt over the body and broke off tree branches to cover her. They spent the next two days quietly standing over her body.” Elephants shed tears and sometimes won’t eat after losing an elephant in their community. That certainly sounds like embracing some kind of pain.

3. Remember the one who has died

As human beings, we celebrate and remember the life of someone loved in many ways. Funerals. Memorial events. Traditions. Elephants have an amazing memory, and long after any member of the group has died, the remaining members do not forget them. For instance, one researcher played a recording of the trumpet call of an elephant that had died. The elephant’s family went wild with calls, looking for the dead elephant. Its daughter continued to call, looking for its mother for days. The researchers never did this again – the reaction and remembrance were so strong.

4. Develop a new identity

When we lose someone we love, we must go through the process of finding and accepting our new identity. Perhaps, you were a wife and are now a widow. Or, you had 6 cousins but now have 5. We must process the change that has occurred in our lives and find our new normal. For elephants, that means finding a new identity in the family group. If the matriarch has died, who will take her place? If a calf has lost its mother, who will care for it now? The group’s entire dynamic changes. They must find a new identity, which they do, and life moves forward.

5. Search for meaning

After a death, we often begin to ask ourselves questions like “Why did this happen?” “What does this mean for me now?” And while elephants certainly don’t search for meaning in the same way that we do, they do seem to understand that life is meaningful. Following the death of an elephant, its family may stay nearby for weeks. The surviving elephants often stand vigil or will revisit the gravesite over the coming weeks. They appear to place high value on their dead, seeming to recognize that life is precious.

6. Receive support from others

Just as we need support from others when we lose someone we love, elephants also mourn together. They often approach a dead elephant together, in a huddle, sniffing and examining the body. And while some may return on their own, they are often together. Depending on which of their family group has died, they then rearrange their group dynamics, which allows all the elephants to find the new dynamic for the group.

Isn’t it interesting how Dr. Wolfelt’s tenets for mourning can be seen in the animal kingdom? Perhaps the six needs of mourning are more instinctual than we might have previously thought. While it’s certainly not the same as human mourning, it is intriguing to think about what may be going through an elephant’s mind as it pays homage to the dead.

You might ask, are there other animals who exhibit mourning rituals?

Absolutely. None are nearly as complex and well-documented as the elephant, but particularly in creatures who are quite social, mourning rituals are often present.

For example, dogs will whine, lick, and stay beside the body of a dead canine friend for hours. They even mourn human beings, as was the case with Hachiko, an incredibly loyal dog whose story captured the hearts of millions (see photo above). Dolphins and whales will keep their dead safe from predators and will carry their dead young for days. Gorillas and chimpanzees also exhibit certain mourning behavior, particularly mothers who continue to carry their dead young, caring for and protecting them for weeks or months. Young chimps who lose their mother may become very depressed and refuse to leave their mother’s side.

While we can’t definitively say that elephants grieve, we can say that they do take part in mourning rituals, just like we do. There is something necessary about acknowledging death and honoring life. Unlike most species, as human beings, we have the privilege to truly know those around us at a close, personal level and honor the losses in our lives. Elephants never forget the ones they once knew – they remember. As should we.