Dear David Coleman: How normal is my daughter's grieving for her puppy?
Clinical psychologist David Coleman offers parenting advice in his weekly column.
Q. My daughter is 11 years old. She had a puppy who died recently and it has been really upsetting for her. She is constantly visiting where we buried the puppy, or taking the puppy's teddy and hugging it. She spends a lot of her time remembering happy times she had with the pup.
She talks in her sleep about the pup and wakes two to three times a night with dreams. She has also become very clingy to me lately and is hugging me a lot.
Should I be worried or is this a normal kind of grieving?
David replies: It is easy to underestimate the power of the relationships that any of us can form with our pets. Children, especially, can connect with pets in such an unfiltered way, where their pet returns their love and affection without judgement, that the relationship can be very deep and very meaningful.
It sounds like this may have happened for your daughter and her puppy. She may have been especially attuned to her puppy, forming a deep connection with it.
The fact that the puppy died when it was still young, also suggests that the death was sudden or unexpected. Your daughter sounds like she is experiencing the shock and deep hurt of the loss.
Children (and adults) can grieve their pets' deaths with the same intensity and same power as they may grieve someone close to them who dies. Indeed, many children will experience the death of a pet before the death of a loved person, and this experience of grieving might be a learning experience for them about death, loss and their own coping ability.
The various things that your daughter is doing, like visiting the grave of her puppy, holding on to a favoured item of her puppy (the teddy bear), and relying on you for greater security, do all sound quite normal, especially as the death is relatively recent.
If she loved her dog, then she is bound to really miss him. That means she is likely to experience all of the same feelings as humans do in any bereavement. So she may feel shock, anger, deep sadness, guilt, hopelessness and so on.
There is no linear process that we follow in grief. It isn't that we feel a series of feelings in a regimented sequence, rather we can experience any or all of the feelings to a greater or lesser extent and there is no predictable pattern to when we'll feel those feelings. So, too, with your daughter.
Right now, she just sounds very sad and like she is missing the puppy a lot. Perhaps she is also trying to work out how she will fill the gap that its loss has left in her life.
I think that being able to be at the grave, and having the teddy as a transitional object (like a reminder of the puppy's presence), are just part of her particular grieving process. The disturbed sleep is also, I think, just an indicator of how emotionally distressed she is.
So, it is good that you are there for her to lean on. It is good that she is turning to you for support, even if that appears clingy. You can't take the pain of the loss away, but you can help to recognise what those feelings are.
At age 11, she might struggle to describe the complexity of her feelings about her puppy and it's death. So, one way to support her, is to try to help her to put words on those feelings, by empathising with how you think she might feel.
This will give her the emotional language to continue to process her feelings and it will also give her a strong sense that you might understand her and how she is feeling. This is a very powerfully supportive thing to be able to offer a child.
Even though you can't make the problem go away, it will be clear to her that you are right beside her and attuned to her.
Time and your emotional support are the two things that will help her to adjust to the death of her puppy. You can't rush the time, it will have to go at it's own pace.
It is only if she still seems stuck and hasn't moved on from clinging to you and the teddy, as the months pass that would indicate her grieving is especially complicated or problematic. For now, just let her cling and acknowledge just how sad she feels. Nature will help her to find a way through this process in due course.
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