Over the years of raising our five kids, we’ve adopted our fair share of pets. Saying “hello” to fish and snails, hamsters and gerbils, parakeets, mice, a rat, a bunny, and several dogs has also meant some difficult days of saying “goodbye.” Yet each time we were losing a pet, we were gaining priceless lessons for the hearts of our children.
We adopted Sasha, a little white bichon, through a small-dog rescue organization. Our household grew a short while later through serving little ones as foster parents. Our dog Sasha had a mama heart for our baby boy (who is now our son through adoption). She’d hover nearby if he was crying, refusing to relax until he did, too. She’d hop up to check on him and nudge him with her nose. As our son grew, he learned gentleness by petting her with care. He was her best source of treats as he threw goodies from his high chair. Our son couldn’t remember a time when she wasn’t close at hand—she was woven into the fabric of our home.
Last year Sasha grew very sick in her old age. She suffered a lengthy decline as she grew weak with pain and seizures. It became more than she could bear, and we had the sad, hard task of letting her go. No one took it harder than our son, Mason. She’s still close in his thoughts even now.
We knew our kids would experience great benefits from the pets in our home. They learned to be responsible, nurturing, and sensitive to others’ needs. Teaching our dogs tricks and earning the trust of a skittish bunny or bird gave them a sense of pride. Yet we discovered hidden blessings not just in our pets’ lives, but in their losses as well.
Here are five valuable lessons our children have learned through the loss of our pets:
Death is real.
Losing a pet stirs up fears and deep questions our children may have never considered before.
Do people die, too?
Where do we go when we die?
Does it hurt?
Will I see my loved ones again?
What is heaven like?
If someone dies, is it forever?
Our kids’ view of life and the world expands to consider the realities of eternity. Their hearts can open to the truth of the gospel—the destruction of sin, the power of Jesus’ death and resurrection, and the glorious redemption of our lives. In the sadness of goodbye, we can have priceless conversations about the very real hope found in Jesus.
Memories are precious.
So much of childhood is focused on the future. Kids are excited for the next birthday or holiday, moving into a new grade, and imagining what they might be when they grow up. Losing a pet encourages us to cherish the past and value the gifts of yesterday.
With creativity, we can create keepsakes to honor the memory of what’s been lost. It’s a time to draw pictures and collect old photos. Mason has a huggable stuffed puppy that wears Sasha’s green bandana. Her favorite toy is kept safely in the old, familiar basket. The vet provided a ceramic paw print to hang on our Christmas tree, so we’ll remember Sasha every December. Having something tangible to see and hold in our hands lets us keep a pet’s memory alive for always.
Make the most of today.
It’s impossible to take loved ones for granted when losing a pet who’s close to our heart. The loss of our dog makes our other pets seem even more precious.
Our kids have a greater tenderness for our animals today. They’re more attentive, passing out treats and going for walks more often. They hold each other accountable to do their pet-care chores with diligence. With a fresh awareness that each day is a gift, our remaining pets are more valued and loved than ever.
Grief is painful. Tears can flow without warning as our kids miss the pet they’ve lost. Sharing the hurt together makes us stronger as a family. We give each other space to talk about our emotions and feel heard.
If encountering death creates fear in our child, we can offer comfort and encouragement. We build in extra snuggles at bedtime, specific prayers for safety and peace, and checking in more often when we’re apart.
No matter what kind of feelings are stirred in our children, we give grace to move through them at their own pace. Walking the grieving process side-by-side deepens trust and closeness in our relationship.
Jesus loves us.
In the middle of the hurt, God invites our children to seek him. No child is too young to experience his comfort and compassion. We can pray together, telling God all about our child’s worries and sadness. We can open the Bible with our kids, discovering the God who “heals the brokenhearted and binds up their wounds.” (Psalm 147:3) The loss of a pet creates a void in our kids’ young lives that Jesus is ready and able to fill with his love.
“Goodbye” is the hardest word we ever have to say in this life. Losing a pet might be our kids’ first taste of death and grief. It will test their courage and resilience. By God’s grace, it can also be a time to grow closer to him and each other. He’ll take care of our kids, and he’ll give us all the wisdom we need to help them cope and find joy.
How precious is your steadfast love, O God!
The children of mankind take refuge in the shadow of your wings.
They feast on the abundance of your house,
and you give them drink from the river of your delights.
For with you is the fountain of life;
in your light do we see light.
*Originally posted at Crosswalk.com.