By: Erin Albright
Dogs are my family. I don’t have a big family, and I like to think that this may have been divinely designed so I could have lots of pets throughout my lifetime to make up for it. They serve as constant companionship and provide lots to smile about on a daily basis. Knowing that they don’t live as long as we do is hard, but I have learned to love on them and enjoy them while I can. They are chapters in the book of my life, and I am so grateful for each one and everything that they have taught me.
Being a former teacher turned graphic designer + dog lover, I realized that I was uniquely qualified to write a children’s book on a very tough topic – the death of a pet. I could speak from experience, but with the knowledge and confidence that my words were going to help kids where they were in their pet-loss journey. Plus, I love beautiful illustrations and am surrounded by other amazing graphic designers—and one, in particular, whom I knew would be able to illustrate my concept and bring it to life.
Helping children understand how to cope with the death of a dog can be hard. Not knowing what to say and not wanting to see their children upset are all sentiments that I have heard parents voice when faced with the death of a pet. Being a huge dog lover and rescue dog mom has meant that I have had to deal with the finality of the death of a pet several times so far in my life. It is awful and sad, but it hasn’t stopped me from continuing to love and cherish new dogs along the way. Dogs are just the best, what can I say, I can’t help myself.
When my first rescue dog, Max, passed away in 2015, I remember talking with my niece Leah about it. I’ll never forget her words, “I’m so sorry, Auntie Erin. I hope this never happens to anybody ever again.” Leah was about 5 years old at the time and I remember quickly realizing that I had an opportunity to help her understand the concept of pet death. In fact, she had a dog at the time that was 12 years old and this same thing was eventually going to happen in her family. And, quite simply, she didn’t understand that. And she didn’t understand that it wasn’t anyone’s fault, it is just a part of life. In the moment, I quickly dreamed up a story about what Heaven is like for dogs. (I picture dog treats growing on the trees and all the dogs happily running through fields—a whimsical but comforting image.)
Inspired by this conversation, I eventually wrote a book to help kids understand pet loss. Sassie’s New Home was published in January 2019 and was a #1 New Release on Amazon in several categories. With the release of the book, I wanted to also provide additional support for parents and families when having these tough conversations with children. As a result, I partnered with Rejuvenate Mind Body Wellness Center to pull together some helpful information for parents and families on the topic of pet loss. Child Therapist Natasha Symes, M.S., provided me with these tips to help families:
- Be honest and gentle when telling your child that the pet has died. Saying that the pet went to sleep or ran away can be confusing and cause children to feel fearful or have hope that the pet might return.
- Express emotions. Show them it's okay by talking about and expressing your own emotions. Kids might feel sad, mad, confused or a variety all at once. It's normal to feel this way. Listen to them talk about their feelings and comfort them. Emotion is temporary and will eventually pass when expressed and validated.
- Reflect. Share your own memories and listen to kids tell stories about the pet. Look at photos together. Kids might want to draw pictures of or write stories about their memories of the pet.
- Memorialize. A simple ceremony where everyone shares their favorite memory and says goodbye can be healing. A collar or food dish could be kept as a keepsake.
- Grief is a process and is different for everyone. It might seem that a child has accepted the death one day and then the next day they are sad and upset again. This is normal. Continue to comfort and validate their feelings.
One thing that I think that parents may find interesting, is that I actually had quite a few kids read my children’s book, Sassie’s New Home, before its release. They helped me tweak it to make its message effective. I originally had the phrase “passed away” in the book to describe what happened to lovable Sassie, but it was kids who made me realize that they needed to hear the word “died.” They were flipping back through the pages looking for that word to help them understand. And kids are so honest. They literally said that they were just wanting to make sure that Sassie had died. It was important to them that this word was used to describe pet death.
I am so proud of Sassie’s New Home and the way it has helped families and children discuss this important topic. I have had families thanking me for providing this outlet for their family. Sassie’s New Home is just one of many books though, that deal with this topic. I like to think it is the best, but I am biased. Ha! Below is a list of some helpful children’s books related to pet loss.
- Sassie's New Home by Erin Albright
- The Tenth Good Thing About Barney by Judith Viorst
- I’ll Love You Always by Hans Wilhelm
- When a Pet Dies by Fred Rogers
It is my hope that you get many happy wonderful years with your four-legged friends and that you cherish each day that they are with you and your family. But, I think it is important for you to know that there are resources out there when you do need to have this conversation with your child.