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A Really Bad Evening


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I am in a somewhat different situation.

I received a phone call last night from my frantic wife with my 13 year old son screaming and crying in the background. He put the recliner chair down and it crushed his 12 week old kitten. She died on the way to the vets.

After having a male cat for 5 years we decided to get a kitten. she was great for all of us, very entertaining, our older male cat, never around another cat before, acclimated well to her. He is clearly looking for her. I am surprised at my own mourning because she attached her self to me quite a bit napping in my arm or on my chest a lot. She could make us smile no matter what was going on, no matter how bad it was. She is clearly already missed.

My older son (15) came home, hugged his little brother and cried with him. My wife and I are sick and worried about our son. I told him I loved him and that accidents happen.

What can I do for my son in this? He's in school but doesn't want to be. He is being very hard on himself. My wife and he are traumatized by the ugliness (bloody, deformation, seizure) that went along with this including necessity to keep our some outside while his clothes and the floor was cleaned up.

He is quite emotional anyways and I do not want him to continue on. I want to get another kitten, perhaps in a few months.

Advice is welcome.

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My dear friend,

I'm so sorry to learn of the accidental death of your son’s kitten last night, and certainly this tragedy is compounded by the awful circumstances surrounding her death.

Unfortunately, when a child's pet dies, there is all too often a tendency to minimize both the loss and the child's grief, especially if the pet was very small, like a Guinea pig or a goldfish ~ and I am gratified to see that you’re not doing that with your sons. No matter what the type of animal, a child's attachment to a pet is genuine and real. As a playmate, confidante and ally, a pet is one of the most steady, accepting, non-demanding, non-judgmental figures in a child's life. It is not simply the type of pet, but the depth of the attachment your sons had to this kitten that determines the measure of the grief they feel at losing her.

Certainly youngsters grieve as deeply as adults, but they express their grief differently. Their attention span is shorter than ours, so they tend to move in and out of grief, and the symptoms of grief may come and go, varying in intensity. Since they've had less experience with crisis, they have fewer coping skills as well as a more limited capacity to confront the reality of their loss and to find meaning in it. Having fewer language skills, they tend to express their feelings by acting them out rather than talking about them.

You know both your sons better than anyone else does. You would be wise to watch closely and listen carefully to what they are saying and doing. If you are unsure of what's going on with them, what they are thinking and feeling about all this, it's important that you ask. Until you talk about this with one another, your boys may not even know what they are feeling, in which case it's helpful for you to name what they may be feeling (lonely, angry, guilty, sad, confused, hurt). One excellent way to open up the subject is to find and read together one or more of the outstanding books about children and pet loss (for example, Judith Viorst's The Tenth Good Thing about Barney, in which a boy works through his grief by planning a memorial service for his cat and, at his mother's suggestion, thinking of ten good things to say about Barney over his grave). You can model reminiscing and talking openly about how much this kitten meant to the entire family. This gives both your sons permission to feel, show and express their own pain. Even if you and your wife weren't as attached to this kitten as your sons were, you can still put yourselves in their place and understand the significance of their loss. If you were just as attached as they were, letting your sons see you express your own sadness teaches them that it is okay, healthy and normal to feel sorrow at the death of someone we love. Like the mother does in the Barney story, you can explore with your sons all the ways they can memorialize this kitten (such as planting a shrub or tree in her honor, drawing a picture of her, or putting an album or scrapbook together).

I understand your wanting to get another kitten for your son in a few months, but be careful about the timing. As a good dad, part of you may be wanting desperately to "undo" the horrible memory of the manner in which she died or to minimize the pain your sons are feeling at losing this kitten. In the normal course of grieving, the time usually comes when we feel ready to attach to another companion animal. Nevertheless, it usually is a mistake for parents to rush to do so in an effort to diminish the grief that is felt in the household. Your boys need time to finish with this kitten, and then only with the understanding that there is no way to replace the loved one who died. Getting a new pet before the grieving process is completed may suggest to children that the one who died was insignificant and disposable, and may deprive your family of finding meaning in the whole event. When you do decide to welcome a new animal into your home, make sure your boys know that it needs and deserves to be loved for itself as a distinct and separate individual, and not as a replacement for the one who died. If one of your boys seems reluctant to care for or relate to the new pet, be patient and help him express and understand what he may be feeling.

You say that your younger son is being very hard on himself, and I would expect that he may be feeling very guilty about what happened to his kitten. Keep in mind that his reaction is quite appropriate under the circumstances and is, after all, an indication that he is a good and decent young man who cares very deeply about this little creature who died. What you are already doing sounds fine to me: reassuring him that whatever happened was not intentional on his part, that it was a tragic accident, that accidents do happen, that when we make a mistake like this it's important that we learn from it so we don't repeat it, etc. Allow your son time to experience, express and work through the guilt that he is feeling, know that any good and decent human being would feel the same way he does under the circumstances, and have faith that with your help, reassurance and understanding, he will get through this difficult life experience. Make sure that you let his teachers at school know what has happened, and seek their help in keeping a watchful eye on your son.

Keep in mind that how we handle children's feelings and questions and what children observe in the actions of adults around them is what prepares them to face and deal effectively with life's many losses and disappointments in the future. What both your sons need from you is accurate information, a chance to ask questions and express their feelings, and consistent and loving attention from you and your wife. The fact that you posted here seeking our advice tells me that you are a concerned and caring father. I'm sure that you and your wife already are doing just fine with all of this.

If you haven't already done so, I encourage you to visit and explore my Grief Healing Web site, at http://www.griefhealing.com. You will find a wealth of information, comfort and support there. See especially this page, on which appears a poem written by an 11 year old girl in memory of her beloved dog Max: A Poem For Max

You might also be interested in my booklet, Children and Pet Loss: A Guide for Helping. You can read about it at Children And Pet Loss. See also the excellent articles and resources I’ve listed on my site’s Children and Pet Loss page, as well as my Child, Adolescent Grief page.

I hope this information proves useful to you, my friend, and as you feel ready to do so, I hope you will let us know how your family is doing.

Lest you feel all alone in this tragedy, please read the posts in this thread: I Accidentally Killed My Cat in The Dryer

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Thanks for the response. Already I see the healing. He told me "I will always have a place in my heart for her and no one else. I will make room in my heart for another, but not now." Clearly he spoke with a teacher today who gave him great advice. The cat died on his mom's birthday and I had created a calendar with photos of it. Included in it were a couple of the kitten and our adult cat. He wrote notes to her. I miss you, RIP and 2/3/09.

He also spoke of the incident and the violent scene, the blood, the convulsions and knowing he caused it. I reminded him it was an accident.

We'll heal, we're on our way. I miss the joy she brought us and occasional frustrations. The last time I saw her she was grabbing at my shoe laces, untying them as I tried to leave for work. I clearly recall not getting angry about it even though I was late. Good.

This also appears good for me.

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I've come to this site because of deep grief over our almost 17-year-old dog little poodle, Arnie. We had to put him down on 12/29 due to his failing health. I knew that it would be very tough, but it is really indescribable. It seems that the age of the pet just doesn't matter--Arnie was a cherished and beloved family member, always a puppy, and the time is never right.

I just wanted to let you know that 17 years ago, right before Arnie became a member of our family, I backed out of our driveway and ran over/killed our other dog, also a small poodle, named Freddie. There was blood, etc. So I have a very good idea of what your son is going through.

I'll tell you, honestly, what got me through it. There were two things--(1) friends knew how much I loved Freddie (we had rescued him from a shelter) and kept stressing the fact that "this was an accident," and (2) horror of horrors, about a month later a father in our hometown backed out of his driveway and killed one of this three-year-old twins. Talk about indescribable!

I sort of snapped out of it after that horrific accident in our town, and was able to put my terrible incident into better perspective. More than anything, it was the horrible guilty feeling that was destroying me. Knowing that things like this happen to others (and in worse ways, obviously, as in the unspeakable loss of a child) is what helped.

I didn't think I could love another dog after that misery, but fell in love with Arnie. I have a photo of me holding him the day we brought him home--all of 2 1/2 pounds at the time--and I remember thinking when that photo was taken, "I will never be able to love another dog." I was so wrong!

So just do what you are doing--honor your son's feelings, but also let him know that he is not the only one who ever accidentally killed a beloved pet. It happens, and it is a nightmare, but that is the nature of an "accident."

I hope that this is a little helpful.

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I appreciate your comments. At this point my son wants another kitten in the next few weeks. I am not sure if I am ready, nor is my wife. I'm sure we'll be fine and accept the new kitten but I am also sure I will remain guarded for a short spell.

Thanks everyone for your support. It seems like it was months ago and it was just over a week.

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