'And all because of a damned cat! It's only a cat, for God's sake!'
I'll never forget the wracking sobs of the girl sitting before me, and the disbelief on the face of the mother who uttered these words.
I was a Guidance Counsellor in a city high school, and the girl's performance had slumped in recent weeks. Her mother couldn't believe it might possibly be related to the loss of the girl's pet cat.
It became obvious that there wasn't much of a bond between mother and daughter. So over the years the girl's need to receive and GIVE affection had been transferred to her cat. Now that the cat had passed on, the girl was devastated.
What made matters worse was her mother's total lack of insight.
Studies carried out by veterinary associations in the UK suggest that most kids will have a pet of some kind at some time: cats, dogs, mice, hamsters - whatever! - and it's probably the same in other countries.
Since kids' pets are so common, it's well for parents to be aware of the impact they can have on their children's lives.
Psychologists talk of the 'human - companion animal bond', which can be as strong as any human-to-human bond. Or even stronger, as in the case of the girl above.
So when the loss, illness or death of a pet occurs, the impact can be just as devastating.
Many families (parents as well as kids) will be familiar with the grief and devastation brought on by the death of a faithful dog.
But some parents think that the death of a mouse or fish is no big deal. It's a tiny animal, so no great loss!
They fail to realise that the attachment or BOND between child and animal is not measured by the animal's size! It's the level of emotional investment that counts.
In fact we now know that the reaction to a pet's death can go through exactly the same process as that of the loss of a loved one.
- Denial (No, he'll be okay. He can't have died!)
- Bargaining (If I get him back I'll look after him properly this time!)
- Anger (It's the vet's fault. OR I should have done this or that!)
- Grief (There's a void in my life now!)
- Moving On (He'll always be in my heart, but I'm coping now)
How can we help our kids cope with this complex process?
Obviously, the first thing is to recognise the impact of the loss, and we can learn from the example of the mother above.
It also goes without saying that we must encourage our kids to express their grief and explore their feelings.
And we must also recognise the value of a 'rite of passage'. This is a ceremony, simple or otherwise, whereby the participants realise they have moved from one situation or status to another.
Following the death of a pet, this can be a burial or a memorial ceremony. As parents we MUST attend - it's not some simple game the kids are playing in the backyard!
It's a deeply emotional, psychological coming to terms with a potentially devastating loss.
Encourage the kids, then, to treat it seriously. Let them pick or buy flowers. Let them draw pictures, write poems and/or sing songs. Let them say prayers of gratitude for the companionship they enjoyed. Let them express their grief!
Then, at all costs, avoid the temptation to supply a 'replacement' pet. Kids must have time to EXPERIENCE the void, so that they can come to terms with it and in due time move on.
At that point 'another' pet (not a 'replacement') can be considered.
Experiencing both the joys and loss of a pet can be a sound emotional training for the unpredictability of life.
By treating this aspect of their childhood seriously and sensitively we can do our kids an immense favour.