As adults, we have all lost someone we loved, but teachers and media specialists and daycare providers sometimes have to help a child who has experienced a loss for the first time—the death of a grandparent or maybe a pet.
My boys, now 23 and 17, have had many pets—rodents, reptiles, birds, bunnies, and dogs—and we have said good-bye to many of them. But the first time it happened for them, they reacted in very different ways. Just seven when our Springer spaniel, Ruffles, died, Alex was very calm about it and parroted our words: “She was old. She was in pain. She feels better now.” Two weeks later, he came out of his bedroom, sobbing, “I MISS Ruffles!” Nathan was also seven when he found his very first pet, a black gerbil named James, lifeless in his cage. His grief was immediate. As he held James in his hands against his tear-streaked face, Nathan wailed, “Is James in heaven?!? Will I ever see him again?!?”
Three recent books address the emotions children may feel in the loss of a pet. In Harry and Hopper, a boy and his dog are best friends and spend their days together, and when Hopper suddenly dies, Harry’s sadness is overwhelming. But night after night, when Harry goes to bed, Hopper shows up at his window. Each night the dog fades a little more, until Harry is finally ready to say goodbye.
In Good-bye, Sheepie, Owen’s sheepdog gradually slows down as he ages, and one day Owen finds Sheepie motionless under a tree. As Owen’s father digs a grave, they talk about their good memories of Sheepie, memories that they will always have of their shaggy friend.
I shared this next book with a friend whose dog had died, and she said it helped her as well as her two young boys. A skinny mutt in The Blue House Dog became a stray when his owner died and their blue house was torn down. He’s nothing special—except to a young boy. The boy understands the grief of the dog, because he has also lost a good friend—his dog. The boy patiently earns the dog’s trust, and the two gradually become fast friends.
The death of a pet is a very emotional experience, but even harder is the loss of a family member. Two months ago, my father died. Though he was old and getting frailer, his death was sudden and unexpected. Less than four weeks later, my niece died. Pam was not old and, as a nurse, she was conscientious about her health. Her death was sudden and a shock. While all of the family grieved, death was an especially bewildering concept for eight-year-old Dylan, who in less than a month lost a loving great-grandpa and a fun aunt, as well as his goldfish.
Two recent picture books address the death of a family member and a friend. In Grandma’s Gloves, a little girl has always loved helping her grandma in the garden. “Grandma has a way with flowers,” she tells us, and even though Grandma no longer recognizes her family, she still remembers to take care of the plants in her room. After Grandma dies, the little girl’s mother is packing up her things and asks her daughter if she would like something that belonged to her grandmother. The little girl chooses Grandma’s gardening gloves and tells her mom that she will teach her everything she learned about flowers, and they can plant a new garden.
Crystal, the old turtle in Remembering Crystal, and Zelda, the young goose, are close friends. They enjoy reading and swimming and talking together. But one day when Zelda goes to the garden, she can’t find Crystal, and she doesn’t believe the other geese who tell her that Crystal has died. Zelda sets off on a journey to find her dear friend, and though she travels to the highest mountain and the deepest ocean, she cannot find her friend. Sad and lonely, Zelda begins to remember all of the good times she had with Crystal and all of the things that Crystal taught her, and she realizes that her friend will always be in her heart.
Dad and Pam, we miss you—but you’ll always be in our hearts.
Always and Forever by Alan Durant. 2004.
The Best Cat in the World by Leslea Newman. 2004.
The Blue House Dog by Deborah Blumenthal. 2010.
Good-bye, Sheepie by Robert Burleigh. 2010.
Goodbye Mousie by Robie H. Harris. 2001.
Grandma’s Gloves by Cecil Castellucci. 2010.
Harry & Hopper by Margaret Wild. 2011.
I Remember Miss Perry by Pat Brisson. 2006.
I’ll Always Love You by Hans Wilhelm. 1985.
Nana Upstairs & Nana Downstairs by Tomie dePaola. 1973.
Remembering Crystal by Sebastian Loth. 2010.
Saying Goodbye to Lulu by Corinne Demas. 2004.
The Tenth Good Thing about Barney by Judith Viorst. 1971.