National Pet Loss Helpline Open to Anyone Grieving a Pet
How to talk to a child about a pet’s death, plus help available for families coping with the loss of a pet.
Have you ever had a funeral for a goldfish? Or made a shoebox coffin for a pet hamster?
If you thought the act was ridiculous or unnecessary—don’t. According to The University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign College of Veterinary Medicine Counseling Psychologist Gail Wallis Hague, MSED NCC LPC, grieving for a pet is not only natural, but it is an essential part of healing.
For 2 ½ years Wallis Hague has counseled grieving clients and staff of Vet Med, and she also comforts the bereaved nationwide.
With the acceptance of this job, her love of animals and humankind merged.
“I’m passionate about animals. I’ve always had animals. My parents were not animal lovers. But as soon as I was independent, I adopted two kittens and kept them in my sweater drawer,” she said.
During her tenure at Vet Med, Wallis Hague resurrected the Pet Loss Helpline that had been abandoned.
The helpline is open to anyone grieving for a lost pet. Anybody, across the country, can call on Tuesdays and Thursdays from 1 to 6 p.m. Outside of those hours, you can leave a message. She will personally return calls within 24 hours. The number is (217) 244-CARE (2273).
“In the fall, when the students are back, I’ll be training students to answer the helpline more readily. The ultimate goal would be to answer the helpline 24/7.”
If you are a Vet Med client, however, help is available in person.
She is also available to help with decision making. She can discuss euthanizing a pet, or she can talk through choosing a surgical option. Also, post-mortem help is available. She can guide you to cremation, group cremation or help when choosing an urn.
“Molly’s Room” can also help struggling pet owners. This is where Vet Med clients can sit with a passing pet. This is also a good place for parents and kids to talk through what’s going on with their pet.
Outside of the Vet Med program, Wallis Hague has a lot of general grieving advice. When talking to your children about losing a family pet, Wallis Hague said the age of the child has a lot to do with it.
“It’s a life lesson, an unfortunate part of life, but it’s an important one. It can help preface when an actual family member dies—like a grandparent,” she said. Some kids live their entire life knowing that pet.
How to talk to your kids about a pet’s death …
- Be supportive and understanding. Other children and pets can act out. They can be angry or feel out of control. Some kids can sleep more or get snippy. Some pets even take on the attributes that defined the lost pet. For example, if the cat that passed away was more of a lap cat, and the cat that’s left was more independent, the independent pet may become cuddlier with the owner.
- Don’t stop communication about the death until you are sure the child is healed.
- Don’t just stay busy to forget. Keep your days simply structured.
- Explain euthanasia as a peaceful process. Doctors are wonderful at explaining this. The dog or cat is in pain, and they will not be in pain after euthanasia. Keep it simple. Tell them the animal goes to sleep, and they will not be confused, scared or feel pain anymore.
- Have a faux funeral. Wallis Hague said rituals help you get through terrible times. The sense that you have done something for someone you love is a wonderful thing, she said.
- Wallis Hague recommends the book, “The Tenth Good Thing About Barney.” The child can only think of nine things they love about their pet. The child finally concludes, the tenth thing is that Barney is looking down on them from heaven.
- People ask, do all dogs go to heaven? Wallis Hague said if that’s what you believe—that’s where they’ll go.
Lastly, if you are confronting someone who has experienced the loss of a pet—say something! Pets can be just as loved as a child. People are farther away from family, they are living longer, they are not having children. For empty nesters pets are sometimes a substitute child. When a human loved one dies, people bring over casseroles, take time off work—not when a pet dies. To some, pets are family members. The loss needs to be treated that way.
Wallis Hague condones welcoming another pet into the home ONLY when the yearning to love another pet outweighs the grief. Also, understand that the love for the pet, just like the pet itself, will not be identical.
Wallis Hague said there is no one way to react. Women don’t understand why the pain isn’t going away in three weeks while men show embarrassment. For most people it comes in waves. The pain changes, and it will ease after a while. Soon it becomes a part of a family’s history, but it is no longer what defines them.
Goldfish or Great Dane. Hermit crab or tabby cat. The loss of a pet can feel like losing a member of the family. It’s OK to take the time and consideration to grieve the loss. Allow yourself and your children to properly say goodbye.
Use the aforementioned resources if you need a healing hand.
Wallis Hague needs you! She is trying to put together a support group for adults and/or children. Call the hotline, (217) 244-CARE (2273), if this is a service you would like to use.
Emily Harrington is a Chambana townie. She left her 8 a.m. to 5 p.m. job in communications so that she could be a 24/7 mom to two busy boys. Still interested in writing, Emily uses some of naptime to practice her passion and keep her mind right. Emily is a happy wife with a happy life because she fell for a fellow townie. Emily usually finds herself engulfed in balls, blue and belly laughs.