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Coping with the Loss of a Family Pet

Dog and girl with a ball. Saying goodbye to furry members of your family is difficult for kids of all ages.

Like many parents, our first “babies” were our cats and dogs. Now that our family has grown and our children are growing up, we’re suffering the loss of those pets as they age. Last Halloween, after a long illness, we said goodbye to our quirky 21-year-old black cat, Buddy; last week, our loveable thirteen-year-old dog Kharma passed away unexpectedly.

Thankfully, our six-year-old twins handled the losses fairly well. To help your family through this transition, here are a few things that worked for us, both before and after the loss of our beloved friends.

Read and Discuss

When Buddy turned 20 and began to lose weight, we talked gingerly but frankly with the boys about the fact that, someday, our pets would die. Then I went to the public library. I searched the subject keywords pet(s) and death and found more than ten picture books about losing a pet. Here are a few stand-bys to look for at your local library:

  • When a Pet Dies by Fred Rogers of Mr. Roger’s Neighborhood
  • The Berenstain Bears Lose a Friend by Stan Berenstain
  • Saying Goodbye to Lulu by Corinne Demas
  • Goodbye, Mousie by Robie Harris

Say Goodbye

There are many appropriate ways to say goodbye. Use your best judgment about what is fitting for your child’s age, maturity, and attachment. Should the child see your pet after it has passed? Will you have a funeral or memorial?

Release a balloon in their honor. Have the kids draw pictures and dictate farewell statements to their pet and hang or scrapbook them with photos. Make a donation to your local humane society in your pet’s name. Select, as a family, a photo of your pet to hang in your home. Whatever you do to honor the passing, be sure to include the kids on each step of the way.

Remember the Stages of Grief

Losing a pet might be a child’s first experience with death. Some kids go through the stages of grief (shock, denial, bargaining, guilt, anger, depression, and acceptance) more quickly (or slowly), or skip certain steps altogether. Others experience these stages in ways so subtle that their astute parents don’t even realize how the children are coping.

Accept whatever state your child falls at any given moment, and be a sympathetic ear to hear their feelings. Be honest, and let them see how you handle grief in a healthy manner. Muster some extra patience for any temporary behavior changes your child might experience.

If you’re not sure what to expect, check out’s Developmental Grief Stages. Adolf Moser’s book for kids, Don’t Despair on Thursdays! The Children’s Grief-Management Book, might come in handy during this tough time as well.

Resist Getting a New Pet for a While

Predictably, many children will wonder when you will get a “replacement.” Although a new pet might provide a temporary distraction, The Humane Society of the United States recommends first giving your family time to grieve and to consider carefully the responsibilities of pet ownership (“Coping with the Death of Your Pet”).

A new pet will never fill the hole left by the previous one, but with patience and thoughtfulness, your family will be able to move on in a healthy way.

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Staying Connected to Your Partner

Lack of sleep, busy schedules, and balancing home and work life leaves little time for our partner. True connection is essential to maintain a vibrant relationship once the kids have grown up and moved out. I asked some of my fellow moms of Columbia Elementary kindergarteners and my book club girlfriends how they foster a strong bond with their spouse. Here are a few practical ways they nurture their partnership while navigating the day to day.

Make quality time with your partner a priority. Make quality time with your partner a priority.

Take care of yourself first.

As parents, we’re trained to place everyone’s needs before our own. But doing so often leaves our own needs unmet. Eileen Laughlin, a working mom of two boys, age four and six, started a local monthly women’s discussion group based on the book The Art of Extreme Self-Care by Cheryl Richardson. After setting aside time to read, exercise, and indulge a favorite hobby, Eileen says she feels more fulfilled. “The key is that you have to fill yourself up before you can give to others, otherwise you can get lost and feel drained.”

Mary Moore, mother of twin seven-year old boys, says it took a while to realize that accepting separate interests was essential to her 20-year relationship with her husband Peter. “He has no interest in bird watching or scrapbooking, things that I love, and I don’t care to golf. But even if I don’t enjoy his hobby, I should still respect it. I miss him when he’s gone, but it’s worth it because the person I get back is the man I married.”

Schedule time together without the kids.

Nicole Brown, mother of a three- and six-year old, has traded date night childcare with four other families for several years. “Once a month we have all the kids at our house for three hours, and three times a month we drop the kids off and have our date,” Nicole explains. “We try to schedule two month’s worth of dates at once so it works well even for families with difficult schedules.”

The Browns also recently swapped sleepovers with one of the families. “My husband and I spent an overnight alone in Seattle. The kids really look forward to it, and so do we,” Nicole says.

Walk to date night instead of driving.

You’re already going on regular dates? Congratulations! Now try walking to your destination. As Elle Woods of Legally Blonde put it, “Exercise releases endorphins. Endorphins make you happy. Happy people don’t kill their husbands.”

By walking to your date, you can hold hands and really talk with your partner on the way. An added bonus of eating close to home is that you can support local businesses. And as long as you don’t have to drive the babysitter home, you can both have a drink with dinner. If the weather doesn’t cooperate, you can always try again next time.

Check in each night after the kids are asleep.

“When the kids are around, you just can’t chat or check in without interruption,” says Mary. She and her husband share the sofa most evenings and discuss their day. “It helps us remember who we were before we had kids. We fall back on our underlying friendship, and share our sense of humor and the silly inside jokes that only he and I would understand.”

Plan future escapes from the daily routine.

“We always have some getaway planned, with or without kids, something to look forward to, like an overnight in Seattle or a trip to the beach. When things feel crazy, we have a break in the routine to look forward to,” says Mary.

Don’t forget to enjoy the moment.

In this busy period of our lives, we need to make time to tune in. Turn off the radio and put away the iPhone. Talk to each other during those innumerable car rides. Don’t forget to see the sunset, not just record the photo. Hold hands, hug, laugh at the funny things the kids say and do, and try to find the absurdity in the moments when they drive you both crazy.

Spending real time with our spouse helps us remember why we chose them in the first place and makes it easier to forgive them. Says Mary, “When he walks across the floor in muddy shoes and I want to kill him, I take a deep breath and remember what I love about him. I try to remember to be thankful for the good times and let the little things go.”

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Frugal Fun for Birthday Parties at Home

The focus on frugality is popular these days. But just because your family is on a budget, that doesn’t mean you want to skimp on birthday celebrations for your kids. Here are some ideas for fun birthday party activities that won’t break the family bank.

Decorating cupcakes is a great birthday party activity. What’s a frugal but fun party activity for kids?

Decorate Your Own Cupcake

Cupcakes are a great alterative to a traditional birthday cake because everyone’s portion is the same and you don’t have to deal with the clean-up of plates and forks. They also provide a built-in activity for your child’s birthday celebration. Give everyone an undecorated cupcake and provide the decorating materials. Make a batch of white frosting and then distribute a 3 oz. Dixie cup with frosting to each child. Let the kids pick a color and have a grown-up add the food color. Once the cupcakes are frosted, let kids decorate with sprinkles, chocolate chips, coconut flakes, and other toppings. Make sure to take a photo of everyone with their creation before the cupcake eating begins!

“Drive In” Movie

If you have access to a projector (we all know someone that we could ask to borrow their company or classroom’s projector for an afternoon), set up your living room, garage, or backyard (weather permitting) for a big screen viewing of your child’s favorite movie. Use a white wall or hang a white sheet as a screen, and hook-up the projector to your DVD player. Set up the whole affair with a concession stand where kids can each choose one beverage, one sweet snack, and a bowl of popcorn to enjoy during the movie; instead of providing soda and candy, juice boxes or water bottles and dried fruit are a nice alternative. Let kids spread out on pillows and blanket on the floor, or set up folding lawn chairs outside or in the garage. Compared to a trip to the local multiplex, it’s a pretty inexpensive way to entertain a crowd a kids for the evening.

Downtown Scavenger Hunt

So, this activity doesn’t technically take place “at home,” but you don’t need to pay a party rental fee at any of the places you visit. A scavenger hunt gets everyone moving for some exercise, and kids can practice puzzle-solving, map reading, and navigation skills. They’ll also get familiar with the local businesses in your community. To start out, give everyone in a party a map of the streets in the downtown area of your town (in Bellingham, you can get print off a “Terrain” view of just street names and no business names at Google Maps). Write out clues that will direct them to some memorable places in the area, like banks, museums, eateries, and parks. One example might be something like, “This is my favorite place to go in Bellingham for a cold, sweet treat. Its mascot is a duck and its name starts with M.” It won’t take long for kids to figure out that you’re talking about Mallard Ice Cream. Maybe that should be the last stop on the trip, as it’s not very kind to take anyone to Mallard (let alone a group of excited children), and deny them a cone of delicious ice cream.

What are some ways that your family has saved money and still had a great birthday celebration? Leave a comment below!

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